A week and a half from Apalvik, the craggy green fjord of Attilsund rose into view beneath a steel-grey sky. Stigander ordered the sail furled and the oars deployed as they nosed the Vidofnir into the narrow channel. The ship passed into the shadow of the cliffs to either side.
Einarr shivered and wished he had an excuse to join the rowers. Nearly summer, and still he saw ice on the rock near the water line. He didn’t bother looking up: the sky would be little more than a line between the tree-limned rock faces. He would be with the group going ashore, however, and Father had made sure the landing party would be fresh by keeping them off the oars. And if Father wanted them fresh, that meant he anticipated trouble ashore.
The steady swish of the oars through water and the groaning of the Vidofnir were the only sounds they heard until the forbidding walls of the fjord relaxed into gentler slopes and the diffuse light of a cloudy day found its way to the water’s surface. Then the breeze could be heard rattling the branches of the pines, punctuated by larksong and the occasional cry of a gyrfalcon.
Here and there Einarr spotted the tell-tale signs of a freehold – the bleating of sheep, a plume of smoke, even once a red-painted roof peeking through the trees as the fjord became a river winding through the countryside.
Finally, after Einarr began to wonder if there was actually a village on this island rather than just a scattering of freeholds, the forest fell back to reveal a fistful of huts clustered behind a single wooden pier jutting out from the sandy shore. He cast a dubious glance to his left: his father’s brows were furrowed, perhaps in concern that the Vidofnir would have room to dock. Jorir, on his right, looked unconcerned.
“More than a century, and the place hasn’t changed a whit,” the dwarf muttered. “Expect we’ll be camped on the village green tonight.”
Now Sivid furrowed his brow. “Why wouldn’t we just go search out the oracle straightaway?”
“Are you daft? There’s an order to these things. We bypass the village, we’ll never make it to her temple.”
Stigander nodded. “No oracle, especially one of the elven mystics, is going to take all comers. I expect we will be tested on the way. Think of speaking with the village headman as the first test.”
Sivid grunted. “Fine.” He opened his mouth to say something more, but stopped with the sound of sand grinding against the bottom of the hull. “I guess it’s time we introduced ourselves, then.”
Villagers peered curiously down at the banks from where they were at their labors. Some took a few steps toward the river before stopping to watch their unexpected guests openly. Many of them had a grace unknown to men and the delicately pointed ears of an elf: many others appeared to be not quite elves. Some of these last looked almost human. Now that’s unusual. I didn’t think elves bred with humans.
Bardr lowered the gangplank, and Stigander led their small boarding party down to the riverbank. Other than the sons of Raen and Jorir, they took only Sivid and Arring – a man whose chief distinction from the other warriors was the deep red scar running from brow to chin across his face. That scar had been acquired in the escape from Raenshold, however, and he was among the men who had family trapped there.
Einarr scanned the people gathering in front of the pier, but his father spotted the likely face before he did. After only a moment the rest of the group followed Stigander as he approached a grizzled, withered old elven man.
“Greetings, honored sir.” Stigander dipped in a half-bow as he greeted the elder. “We come in peace, and carry goods for trade. I am Stigander Raenson, Thane of Raenshold and Captain of the Vidofnir.”
“Greetings, son of Raen. Our village is unaccustomed so such prestigious visitors.” The elf stressed prestigious oddly, as though he were unimpressed with the idea of clan rulers. As well he might be, I suppose.
“Tell me. What brings the sons of Raen to these shores?” He also sounded like he knew exactly what the answer would be, for the simple reason that it was always the answer.
Stigander spoke it anyway. “We seek the oracle who is said to reside nearby.”
The elder sighed, confirming Einarr’s suspicions. “Very well. Come with me. This evening I will warn you of the path, and in the morning you will proceed in spite of my warnings.”
The old elf led them up the riverbank to the largest of the huts in the village. It was not cramped, but only because it had the look of a meeting-hall for the residents. The floor was strewn with hides, and the wooden chairs padded with woolen cushions – stuffed with feathers, unless Einarr missed his guess. The headman’s wife had plainly devoted some time to ensuring the hall was comfortable.
“Please, sit,” he invited as the last of their troupe stepped into the hall. “My name is Hlothrama, and I am headman of the village of Attilsund.”
“My thanks for your welcome,” Stigander replied. “This is my son, Einarr, the dwarf is his man Jorir, and these are Sivid and Arring.”
Jorir inclined his head particularly deeply to the elder. “Elder Hlothrama, it has been a long time.”
The elven elder drew his eyebrows together in confusion.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, give or take, I sought the Oracle’s guidance. Now I have returned with her payment.”
“Returned… leading other querents?”
“It was a fortunate coincidence of needs.”
“Hm. Then perhaps that shall speed your way to the Weaver’s Palace.”
Jorir cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.
Hlothrama continued. “The Weaver’s Palace is carved from the living rock high on the mountainside to the west of us. Each of you will be given three tests on your way. They may not all be the same tests, and it is entirely possible for you to become separated should any of the tests be failed. Be very cautious: there are those who have failed one of the Oracle’s tests and wandered the mountain forever.”
Sivid opened his mouth, but Hlothrama did not give him a chance to speak.
“You are about to ask if I know what the tests are. I do not: I believe they are different each time, although I have gathered that the Oracle forbids querents to speak of them.”
An unobservant man might have wondered if the elder had some form of clairvoyance Einarr was reasonably certain he had merely performed this task often enough to see the melodies behind it.
“You and your men may camp in the Green tonight, and I am certain there will be those who wish to trade with you on the morrow. It would be most unwise to commence the trek before dawn, and perhaps wisest not to leave much after it. I will pray you fare well in your quests.”
Now Hlothrama stood and walked stiffly from the room through the back.
“Friendly fellow,” Einarr drawled.
“Quite. We should go see to our men and prepare for the morning.”