Tag: Oaths are serious business

5.15 – Altered Memory

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorir shook his head. “I want to offer you a deal. Once that torc leaves this island, anyone still here is trapped. He’ll have my head if I’m here when that happens. I can gamble on beating you in a fight, or I can lead you off this rock – provided you take me with you.”

“Why should I trust you? Three times now you’ve tried to kill me, four if we count alerting your master.”

Jorir barked a laugh, although for a different reason than the first time around. “Because I can see which way the wind’s blowing. Lord Fraener owns me for trying exactly the same gods-damned stunt you’re up to, but I’ll be buggered if I don’t think you might actually manage it. Make me your prisoner and take me to your Captain if it makes you feel better.”

Einarr raised a skeptical eyebrow and did not sheath his sword.

“This is me surrendering, fool.” As if to prove his point, the dwarf folded his hands against the back of his head. “There’s rope over against the wall if you feel the need to bind me.”

“I might just do that. Drop your axe on the ground and kneel.”

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

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

The dwarf’s face turned sober. He remembered this oath well: it was among the strongest among his clan. “By steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, I, Jorir, shall cause no harm to you or yours. By axe and by spear, by flame and by frost, I swear myself to your service. So shall it be until the heavens perish or my lord releases me.”

Einarr nodded, but stood in silence for a long moment. His arm twitched back, and Jorir suppressed the urge to flinch.

Did I make it?

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” Einarr sounded dazed.

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


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2.18 – A Father’s Honor

“If your heart does not remain with the Weaver and the Wolf, swear again before me as you once did before my father Raen.”

A number of grim faces around the hall met Stigander’s request, but no-one protested. Stigander would have been well within his rights to have them put to death, or trial by sword. Within his rights, but foolish: such a blood-letting would have taken generations to return from.

Stigander stood on the dias, flanked by Einarr and Bardr, with Gorgny standing watch just below. Man after man stepped forward and knelt before him, forswearing any allegiance to Ulfr and pledging allegiance to Stigander or his line. No few Singers also presented themselves. Before accepting and offering his counter-pledge, Stigander would look to Gorgny for his affirmation of their sincerity.

Meanwhile, the Vidofnings stood guard around the edges of the hall, looking as uncomfortable and impatient as Stigander felt. That this was necessary at all was a travesty, caused by a single ill-advised dalliance in his father’s youth: never in his life had Stigander been more glad of his policy to never bed a woman not his wife.

At least I won’t have to worry about Einarr. He found his mind wandering as the line moved on – never far, of course, in the seemingly endless stream of pledges and counter-pledges.

After what felt like an eternity of this those gathered in the hall once again stood assembled to either side. Stigander’s gaze slid across the entirety off the hall, and as his eyes lit on each familiar face he smiled a little more openly. “It’s good to be home,” he said, his voice unexpectedly hoarse.

“Tomorrow, there will be work to be done. Tonight, though, let us feast!”

A cheer rose up across the hall, and Stigander stepped down to stand in front of his father’s right-hand man. “Where is Father?”

The scene shifted. Last night’s feast had been one of the wildest Stigander could remember, before or after the Vidofnir had become a vagabond. He thought he had drank too much, although what he felt was more akin to the idea of a hangover than the actual thing. And the next task of the day was to be an unpleasant one, one he’d hoped to avoid.

“When the Weaving unravelled, it came undone all at once,” Gorgny explained. “The Weaver realized what had happened at the same time as all the rest of us, and we caught them before they could escape. They await your judgement.”

Stigander gave a heavy sigh. “Best be on with it.”

Gorgny bowed, and then an unfamiliar-looking woman and appeared before him with a startlingly familiar-looking man, shackled and weighed down with chains, the sole purpose of which seemed to be the weight. The woman, a withered old crone whose long white hair had gone thin and who had lost more than a few of her teeth, stood defiant, but her son was on his knees and would not look up at him. We could almost be twins… The newly resworn jarls formed a circle around them in the center of the room: the Thing would judge.

I suppose she must have been pretty enough in her youth, or she’d never have caught Father’s eye. Stigander met her eyes with a cold stare. To punish her was easy: it would take years for father’s mind to recover, even if his body seemed hale. Gorgny, at least, thought Raen’s mind was still whole enough to mend. Ulfr, though…

Stigander rose, and went to join the circle of leaders surrounding the usurpers. “Weavess Urdr. You stand accused before the Thing of high treason, treason against your husband, practicing the black arts, murder by means of magic and poison, and of practicing the torturer’s arts. Among your accusers, your victims, are members of this Thing. Have you any defense?”

“You dare to try me here, with my accusers among the judges?” The woman may have been a crone, but her voice was as strong as a woman thirty years her junior, and she stood straight and proud.

“You would rather rot in the dungeon until I can call on the thanes and jarls of other lands? Winter approaches: I should think in your shoes I should prefer swift judgement to spending the winter in the dungeon, wondering every day if you might simply have been forgotten. Cold, damp, dark, drafty, and worse than it was before the Weaving forced me into exile.”

Her only response was to meet his hard stare with one of her own.

Stigander gave her a moment. He did not think her neck would bend, and it soon became plain it would not. “Are there any present who will stand in her defense?”

Ulfr moved as though to stand. He planted one foot on the floor, but then placed it back again.

“Even your own son will not stand to defend your actions. Can there be any more damning statement?”

Still Urdr stared at him, but Stigander would not be cowed. “If you will not defend yourself, so be it. The penalty for any one of these crimes is death, and so I put the question before this Thing. Did this woman conspire to overthrow the rightful Thane of Breidelsteinn?”

Not a single Jarl said nay.

“In the overthrow of the thane Raen, by whom she bore a son, did she practice the black art of curse-weaving?”

Once again each man in the circle answered aye.

“Was the rightful Thane, a man she has called her husband, tortured by her hand?”

Some few did not verbally agree to this one, but still there were no nays.

“So be it. Based on the determination of this Thing, who have witnessed the actions of the accused, the weavess Urdr is guilty. You shall be stripped of all you possess and hung in a cage over the sea. You shall be afforded neither food nor fresh water, and even the salt spray shall not reach you. If in four days you yet live, your cage shall be recovered and you shall be burned at the stake.”

He worried for a moment that the punishment would be too harsh, but then the child-like babbling of his father returned to him. This was just.

“Ulfr, son of Urdr. It can be denied by no-one here that you were a willing co-conspirator in your mother’s plan. By strict justice, you should meet her same fate.”

“I cannot deny this.” Even the man’s voice sounded like Stigander’s.

“…Why?”

Ulfr gave no answer, merely continued to stare at the rug beneath his knees.

“If you had come on your own, we could have been brothers.”

“But I could not have come on my own. From the time I was a babe, Mother has spoken of our father as her husband, and alternately doted on his memory and railed against his cruel absence. She promised me the thanedom was rightfully mine… and with the credulity of a child I believed her. The wrong we have done here only became clear to me after we had seized this land and it began to fall apart, and I believed there was naught I could do but try to hold everything together. I will submit to exposure in the cage.”

Justice must be served, but to execute Ulfr would make him a kinslayer. There had to be a better way. “But will you submit to exile, if the Thing agrees?”

Only now did Ulfr look up at Stigander. It was like looking into a mirror. The sound of silver bells drowned out the mirror’s response.


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2.17 – Vision of Home

Stigander caught the sound of silver bells in the wind and steeled himself. The last trial had tried to make him choose between his birthright and his son’s future, as though the two could be separated. That had been bad enough, but surely the trials ahead would be just as wrenching. He took a step forward on the path…

…And found he now stood on a different mountain path, on an island he had not seen in more than a decade. I’m… home?

He blinked, hardly believing what his eyes were showing him. The road beneath his feet, laboriously cut into the granite face, switchbacked above and below. Behind him marched the Vidofnings, savage jubilation painting each and every face. Even Einarr’s, which left a twinge of heartsickness behind. Far below, the Vidofnir bobbed in the water alongside a ship with an unfamiliar ramshead on the prow – Einarr’s ship, it had to be.

The men behind him furrowed their brows. They’re waiting on me. He stepped forward again even as he turned his head to look up the rock face. There, rising above, were the unmistakable grey stone walls of Breidelsteinn. I’m home.

His pace quickened. The Usurper must have already lost, or there would be warriors on the road, and arrows would rain on their heads. Instead, all was peaceful. It was time to reclaim the honor stolen from his father.

As they marched, he heard the strains of the Lay of Raen carry up the road and the corner of his mouth quirked in a smile. That was some impressive breath control Reki had, if she was willing to sing while they marched. At least, he thought it was Reki.

At the top of the switchbacks Stigander stopped again. The gates stood open wide. In the center of the passage, his father’s first liege-man knelt before him. Clustered in the shadows behind, the Jarls and Captains of Breidelsteinn prostrated themselves. No. Not like this. These men were my friends.

But now they were his subjects. Even if his father were still fit to rule, which Stigander thought unlikely, the Clan would never accept him at its head again. They might not accept him, for that matter. Stigander closed his eyes and swallowed hard on the melancholy that threatened to overtake him. Done is done. You knew this would be part of the price.

When he opened his eyes again they were hard. He had hesitated too long already, when now was the time for decisiveness. Three firm steps forward brought him to just ahead of where the man knelt. “Gorgny Agnarsson, do you swear on the names of your father and your grandfather that the Weaver’s sorcery no longer holds you?”

“In the names of Agnar and Hagrlaug, I swear my mind is no longer clouded by sorcery, and may my heart burst if I lie.” Shame practically dripped from the man’s voice.

Stigander nodded, accepting the attestation. Uncle Gorgny had always been an honest man. “Then swear to me as you once swore to my father.”

“My lord prince, Lord Raen yet lives, and though all the clan may forsake him, I will not.”

Stigander snorted, but his face softened a little. “You realize under the circumstances that could mean your death?”

“I do, and I will make any oath you ask of me – except that one, so long as my lord Raen still lives and breathes.”

“Rise, then.” Stigander suppressed a sigh. If he had wanted to prove the man wasn’t a traitor, this managed it nearly as well. “How is Father?”

“Battered but not broken. Never broken.”

“Good.” He smiled at the man he had always thought of as an uncle and clapped him on the shoulder. Stigander had not dared hope that his father would survive this. It would be good for Einarr to meet his grandfather again.

Stigander turned his father’s liege-man and stepped over the threshold. “What of the rest of them?”

“The ones you see? Penitents all. It’s as though we all woke from a bad dream not long ago. The rest are shackled and awaiting justice.”

He nodded now. “I will take the oaths of the penitents in the main hall.”

“Yes, my lord prince.”

His father’s hall had changed under the influence of the Usurper and the Weaver. Raen had made it larger than it had to be so everyone would be welcome, and they were. The lively good cheer he remembered had fled over the intervening years, tossed out with the rugs and candelabrum that were nowhere to be seen on his return. His brother had left it empty, cold, and dark.

Stigander set his mouth in a hard line. Restoring the hall would be easy, compared to the rest of what he had to do. He slowed for the last few steps up on to the dias, feeling their weight.

The seat of the Thane stood before him, polished and painted wood that had never before this moment intimidated him. Stigander blew a breath through his moustache. Rather than sit, he turned to face the men now filling the hall behind him and motioned at a few of them to join him: Gorgny, Bardr, Einarr. As Gorgny stepped into place beside him, he caught the man’s eye. “Uncle, where is Father?”

“Resting, under the care of an herb-witch.”

Stigander winced a little. “Urdr was quite cruel, then.” When Gorgny nodded, he shifted his attention to the hall.

“People of Breidelsteinn,” he began, his voice filling the hall. “It has taken long years, but at last Urdr’s Weaving has been unraveled – by none other than my own son Einarr.”

He allowed a minute for the cheering to die down before he continued. “I do not believe that any of you who stand before me were in their right mind during the Usurper’s reign… but much can change as the years fall away. My friends, I believe that you are all still my friends, and I would ask you to swear to this. If your heart does not remain with the Weaver and the Wolf, swear again before me as you once did before my father Raen.”


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2.16 – Desperate Battle

One down, five to go… Four. Einarr stared through the gap in the circle where his fallen opponent had been and set his jaw. A cry of shock from the other side of Arring said his partner had felled another, but already more Valkyries rushed towards their circle. In only a moment, the two fallen would be replaced by four more. A hollow space opened up in his belly: if there were this many men to deal with the two of them, the fight was going badly all over.

Four men became eight. Einarr could spare no thought for the shallow cuts that got through his guard or for the fate of his fellows. Three times his boot nearly crushed Bardr’s nose as he dodged a blow. Three times he moved in time, but on the third he stumbled.

“Einarr!” Arring lunged, ignoring for a moment the flock of vultures trying to peck out their eyes. Einarr’s shoulder slammed into his crewmate’s back, but the man didn’t budge.

“Thanks,” he grunted. Einarr took the opportunity to lash out with a boot toward one of the Valkyries within range. He heard the satisfying snap when foot hit nose, and the sailor cursed even as blood began to flow down his face.

Such a minor thing was not enough to knock the fight out of a Valkyrie, of course. Einarr launched himself off Arring’s back with a roar. Sinmora whistled as the blade drove for the man’s skull.

He, too, had allies, though. A saber flashed, and instead of the sound of steel biting flesh it was steel striking steel that rang out.

Einarr snarled, ripping his blade back to cut thrice at the three men ahead of him. Blood bloomed on their tunics. Two of them turned a sickly green and dropped to their knees, clutching their stomachs as though to hold in their innards. The third snarled back.

Moist heat gushed from Einarr’s calf. Pain would come later. That was a deep one, but not as deep as the one the Valkyrie got in return. If he lived, he would never father another child.

Einarr’s lungs burned. Even under the full strength of Reki’s song fatigue slowed his arms and fear clutched at his throat. This was like no other battle he had seen. It seemed as though there were no end to the Valkyries, even though their hunting parties were never more than two ships together. Their assailants had ebbed, if only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, smelling sour bile and the iron tang of blood.

Arring’s voice rang out. “Behind you!”

Einarr turned. A javelin – not a crossbow bolt, a javelin – hurtled for his breast. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t feel anything. There was no time to dodge. There was no time to bring his shield or sword to bear. The fates had decreed that this moment was his time.

Einarr lowered his eyelids, accepting his fate. In the moment before they closed, Arring’s sturdy figure seemed to fly into the path of the javelin.

Einarr’s eyes flew open again when he saw what was happening. He screamed in denial.

The javelin found the weak point in Arring’s mail. Blood spurted from his back even as Einarr dashed forward to catch his crewmate… his friend. The world went red.

The next thing Einarr was aware of, he stood alone in a pile of corpses. At his feet lay Bardr and Arring, both gone. A few other lone figures remained of the Vidofnir’s crew, each surrounded by a ring mound of bodies. Jorir. Reki. Erik. One or two others… Father.

He strode to where the others gathered around Stigander, the wound in his leg somehow vanished. “Father.”

“Einarr.” The words were calm and level, but both knew the other’s heart at this moment.

“How many are left?”

“Just those you see here.”

Einarr nodded, looking down at his blood-stained boots. “Where will you take us now?”

Stigander’s voice was tired when he finally answered. “I don’t know.”

“You’re not giving up?” He lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze with a challenge.

Stigander shook his head.

“Good.”

“I’ll be damned if I know how we’re supposed to win back Raenshold with just the few of us, though. And this just cost us everything we’ve earned towards winning the hand of your bride.”

“It was always going to be a matter of wits, Father. Our birthright was stolen from us by guile, and by guile it shall be won.”

“We will still require force of arms to back up our wits, son. After this, we’ll be lucky to find enough men to crew our ship, let alone turn our cause from doom.”

“We’ll find a way. If for no other reason, Father, than the battle here today.”

Now his father looked alarmed, but Einarr did not give him the chance to interrupt.

“The Order of the Valkyrie has wronged the sons of Raen and the men of Breidelsteinn this day – grievously. And they will pay, Father.”

“They already have, Einarr. Look around you. We were outnumbered, and yet it is we who yet live.”

“Are you really all right with that, Father?”

“Even our entire clan does not have the resources to go after the Order of the Valkyrie. Others have tried, and wiped themselves from the map in the process.”

“Then we shall gather other clans to our cause.”

“You realize they’ve an agreement with the Empire, right?”

“So be it. The Vidofnir is my home, and her crew my family. I will not allow this to stand.” He heard the coldness in his own voice as the words left his mouth. He had never experienced rage as a cold thing before, but in this moment it was right. The Order of the Valkyries, and by extension the Empire, would not rest until every Clan was wiped out – their hunters today showed that well enough. If defending his kin meant taking the battle to them, then so be it.

“I swear before all of you, by steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, that our kin shall be avenged, even if it takes my whole life to do it.”

He stood there, staring, for a long moment before he realized that his father was frozen rather than speechless. The sound of silver bells drifted to his ears on the wind from out of nowhere.


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2.14 – Heart of a Dwarf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einarr.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

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

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

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

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

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

Silence filled the meadow.

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

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

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

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


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2.12 – Faithless Hospitality

The tinkling sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears. Testing the fidelity of my love for Runa? Nothing simpler… surely that can’t be it, though? Well, no matter. He hefted the sack of treasure slung over his shoulder so the weight rested more comfortably and the coins tinkled again. Walking along the path up towards Kjell Hall, he whistled a jaunty tune. Jorir was only a pace behind him with another sack of treasure, and over this last quest they had filled out the crew of the Hvalaskurdr. His longship Hvalaskurdr. He had a ship. He had a crew. He had brought more gifts than even Jarl Hroaldr could have thought to ask for. If that wasn’t sufficient, even yet lacking a hall of his own, Einarr could rightly accuse the man of faithlessness.

Einarr stepped through the tree line and into the meadow. Not another quarter-mile in, the gate of the palisade around the hall stood open for them. The crew of the Vidofnir awaited inside, with the Kjellings, for news of his success. A broad grin split his wide moustache and he strode on, stopping just two steps outside the door.

“Hail to the Jarl of Kjell! Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, has returned from his quest!”

“Hail, and well-met!” The Jarl’s voice carried out of the hall nearly as cheerfully as it had for Stigander just after their encounter with the Grendel. “The son of Stigander is welcome to my hall!”

Einarr stepped across the threshold and into the shadow of the hall. He reached up to remove his knit cap – when did I put that on? – as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The smells of meat and mead filled his nose, and rowdy calls of greeting and good cheer assaulted his ears. Stigander stepped up in front of him and clapped him on the shoulders, grinning behind his yellow beard.

“We carried word ahead of you, my boy, since you had someone to retrieve. Everyone’s dying to hear it from your own lips, though.”

He returned his father’s smile in kind, certain that Stigander saw the warmth of his affection behind it. Soon, very soon, they would find a way to reclaim their birthright, and then Stigander could be the thane they all knew he should have been.

The Jarl’s voice rose above the crowd. “Come! Show us the proof of your valor!”

“Well, go on.” Stigander took his cap from him and offered a wordless nod of appreciation to the dwarf.

All eyes – Vidofning and Kjelling alike – were on Einarr and his liege-man as they strode the length of the hall towards the clearing in front of Jarl Hroaldr’s seat.

The light shifted, and Einarr caught a glimpse of Runa, sitting with her lady’s maid in the corner. It was strange: Einarr had thought the maid was a mousey little brown-haired woman, but today the one who attended his love had elfin grace and ridiculously long gold hair – fairer, if it were possible, than Runa’s. He took in so much with a glance before his eye was drawn back to the princess. She sat with her hands pressed against the seat and her shoulders thrust forward, looking up at him furtively from under lowered brows. When she met his gaze, she bit her lower lip. His heart began to race. My lady…

The Jarl cleared his throat: evidently Einarr had been staring. Abashed, he knelt before his father’s friend and set the sack down in front of him with a clatter of precious metal.

“My lord Jarl, I have returned under my own sail and with my own crew, bearing gold and treasure in accordance with the tasks you have placed upon me.” He opened the sack and reached down in among the silver and gold and jewels, looking for the artifact he knew the Jarl would want. There it is. He reached both hands down into the treasure sack and carefully began to remove the goblet.

“In token of these accomplishments, I offer you the Fierbinte, taken from the Imperial city of Krasimirburg during our raids.” He raised the goblet by its stem, resting its base on his other hand to keep it steady. The cup was solid gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires over every inch of the outside. Inside, it was perpetually filled with a blood-red wine that never seemed to spill. “According to the Imperials we questioned, it is said that the one who drinks from the Fierbinte shall know neither disease nor the progress of time for a full turning of the seasons, but that the god of war shall be their constant companion.”

Jarl Hroaldr reached out to cup the goblet’s basin with both hands and lifted it overhead. A cheer rose up around the hall from the Kjellings: the Vidofnings, Einarr was certain, wanted no part of such a thing. Not until they reclaimed their home.

Once the cheering had died down, the Jarl turned and set the goblet carefully on the table as though it were capable of spilling. His attention returned to Einarr. “Rise, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen. Your dedication is most admirable, and so I am willing to overlook that you have not gained a hall. Rise, and take the hand of Runa, and make Kjell your home henceforward. My Thane, Lord Hragnar, sails for Kjell even as we speak to take your oath to him and this land.”

The hall fell silent. To Einarr, the sudden stillness felt as though the world were crashing around his ears. His face felt slack. “I… what?”

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a Jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My Lord, surely you jest?”


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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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