Jorir held out a hand to stop the other two even as Runa charged forward. “Hard enough to get through this without anyone else stirring the air. No sense facing more than you have to.”
Erik grunted. Irding, youth that he was, looked as though he wanted to scoff – right up until he opened his mouth.
Jorir snorted as realization dawned on the young man’s face. “Besides. As his man at arms, I’m next.”
Irding drew his brow down, a different thought occurring to him. “How do you know what we face will be bad?”
“I don’t, really. But we’re being tested by a pair of ravens. That tells me we’ll be seeing death and battle.”
Erik’s face was set in a grim mask, visible even through the beard. “The dwarf is right, son. Best brace yourself.”
Irding shifted uncomfortably and said no more. Jorir turned his attention back to the room full of glowing bubbles. With a hum so low it was nearly a growl, he started forth, his mind carefully blank of everything save the obstacles in his path.
He had hoped, briefly, that his reduced stature would make his passage easier, but it was not to be. He stepped forward and held his breath as an errant bubble passed right through his leg without popping. Nothing happened. Okay then. It’s not just if they touch you. He ducked and weaved and rolled his way across the room, until he finally saw a clear path to where Einarr and his Lady waited. Jorir breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped through the door to guard them, facing the top of the stairs beyond.
Erik and Irding were not far behind him, looking shaken by whatever it was they had seen but not otherwise harmed. It seems I was lucky.
“Shall we continue?”
“Yes, my lord.” Jorir began his steady tromp up the stairs, positioned in the middle of the steps so that none of the reckless youths behind him might dash past. Erik would never learn that he, too, fit that description by Jorir’s reckoning.
The second door they came to looked nearly identical to the first. Jorir stretched and caught hold of the door pull: on the other side was another room filled with the same glowing bubbles as the first floor. Jorir quirked an eyebrow.
“Again?” Irding said from behind. “This tower isn’t half so dangerous as I expected.”
Jorir allowed himself the luxury of a mental groan. Thanks for that, man. At the very least he could be the one to test that, instead of his lord. “Might I have the honor of going first, my lord?”
Einarr gestured forward, and Jorir stalked in. He dodged the first bubble that came for him, and the second, but unlike the first floor it was as though these were actively seeking his head. It wasn’t long at all before three right together rushed towards his face.
He could not dodge: there was nowhere to go. Instead, he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes as the cold, filmy membrane covered his face.
When he opened his eyes, he stood before a very familiar and much-hated forge in a monstrously large cave. Something that happened while I was Fraener’s slave, then? There were no shortage of other places his trial could have taken place: at least here there were a limited range of indignities he could have to relive.
Footsteps sounded from one of the natural side passages. From the sound alone he could tell it was not the giant. Men, then, come to steal from Fraener much as I tried. That doesn’t narrow it down much. “You may as well come the rest of the way in,” he growled. “I already know you’re there.”
The man who stepped forward out of the darkness beyond his forge-fire’s light was the last one he expected to see: red-haired, obviously strong but not over large, with a distinctive sword at his hip. Einarr?
“Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”
Jorir laughed, but there was little mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”
Einarr blinked. He was suspicious, of course. He had every right to be, under these circumstances. “Am I to understand that you’re extending hospitality to me? That, according to the dictates of the gods, you will see to it that I come to no further harm on the island?”
Jorir snorted. It hadn’t been poisoned the first time, technically. Just a brew that didn’t tend to agree with humans. “Fine. Don’t, then. Why are you here?”
“I don’t suppose you’d be able to tell me how to get to Fraener’s Hall, would you?”
“You want to go to the jotünhall, do you? Can’t see why anyone would want to do that.”
“Even still, I fear I must go. Do you know the way?”
“Oh, aye, I can take you there. But it won’t be for free. And you probably won’t thank me for it if I do.”
Einarr sighed. “Of course it won’t…I’m afraid I haven’t anything of value on me. Perhaps some sort of a contest? A… game of wits, perhaps?”
“You would riddle with me? If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.” It had been a very long time since Jorir had anyone to match wits with: Fraener was stone dumb, and most of the men who came treasure hunting here preferred to solve problems with their swords. As for feeding him to the giant, it was one of Fraener’s requirements of his thraldom.
Einarr grimaced. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”
“Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”
“Is it the king?”
Jorir nodded, and Einarr produced the piece from the pouch hanging limply from his belt. “Let’s play. My king, my defense.”
“As you like.”
Jorir tried to remember how he had played that day, in order to keep as close to the memory as possible. Something about Einarr’s play, though, seemed… wrong. In spite of how this went, it began to look as though he would win. “And here I thought you must be good at this game.”
“Ordinarily, I am.” Einarr’s brow creased, and Jorir saw sweat begin to bead there. He would lose in three. Jorir made his next move, and then finally his lord’s face cleared.
Jorir blinked, and then they were at the top of a tall spiral staircase, Sinmora’s tip digging in to his back while he fumbled for the key. He had lost – hadn’t even cheated to ensure the memory played out properly: why was this different?
…Oh, right. Maybe because the next thing that had actually happened was, he had tried to kill the man on the staircase, fearing Fraener’s wrath.He would have serious trouble doing so now.
“Hurry it up,” Einarr growled.
Jorir removed his key from the lock and hid it back inside his shirt. “Tell me, sir raider, if someone came to steal from your Captain, what would you have done?”
“Slain the man before I played a game of tafl with him. Go on.”
“Go to hel.” The dwarf spun on his heel, the hand that had been reaching for the handle instead unhooking the axe from his belt. He leaped at Einarr, axe swung high overhead.
Instead of the expected parry, Einarr danced back two steps. Jorir’s eyes widened as he saw he was about to plunge over the edge of the stair.
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