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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