Morning in Attilsund was marked not by the sun climbing over the tops of the pines but by a gradual lightening from black to grey of the cloud cover that had not yet broken. Einarr awoke groggy after a night filled with restless dreams, that all seemed to end with the realization he was being watched. He stomped into his boots anyway, warming his toes a little in the process, and hoisted his baldric over his shoulder as he joined his father and Jorir near the edge of the green.
His father’s eyes were just as dark as his own felt, although the dwarf appeared to be in high spirits. He nodded to both of them as he stepped up. “Morning.”
“Good morning!” Amusement twinkled in Jorir’s eye – or at least, Einarr thought it looked like amusement. He didn’t see what was so funny, though.
“Einarr,” Stigander drawled. “Once Sivid and Arring get here, we should go.”
“Mm.” Einarr looked over his shoulder toward their camp. “I’m sure they won’t be long.”
“They’re not here soon, I’m leaving without them.”
Einarr hummed and changed the subject. “So did anyone else feel like they were being watched all last night?”
Stigander nodded and crossed his arms. Jorir smirked.
Sivid and Arring trudged up behind them, looking like they slept even less well than the other men had.
“There you are.” Stigander lowered his arms. “Let’s get going. If we have a chance to make it to this Weaver’s Palace before dark, I’d rather.”
“That,” Jorir said, “is entirely up to you lot. I’ll guide you as best I can, but there’s magic involved in finding her.”
Einarr nodded. “Shall we be off, then?”
A nod moved around their group like a wave, and the five men set off up the forest path, toward the towering mountain in the east.
The trail, such as it was, meandered through the old-growth pines to the east. He saw no sign of the sea, but Einarr thought they must have walked far enough to approach the coast before their path began to wend upwards. He might not have realized the change at all save for the rock ridge bordering the trail on one side that faded away as they continued. Not long thereafter he began to feel the incline in his thighs and the forest grew thinner.
Here and there rock would jut forth from the forest floor, and these grew more frequent as the landing party ascended into the alpine meadows. Some of them, Einarr noted, were carved to resemble the head of a wizened elder or a crone. Alone of all of them, Jorir paid the standing stones no mind.
Midmorning drew near, and the steep trail had winded all of them. Where earlier there had been some scattered conversation, now Einarr at least was focused on taking one step after another up the side of the mountain and around each of the numerous switchbacks. The sound of flowing water reached his ears: he looked up, casting about for its source.
A little ways off to the side of the trail stood a well carved of rough-hewn stone. The water flowed down from the mouth of a face someone had carved in the rock down into a basin below, and sunlight glinted off the water in the basin. The stone between the face and the basin seemed to glow in the reflected light. “Father, there is water. We should draw.”
Einarr did not wait for an answer, nor did he notice when no answer came as he stepped off the path toward the well and its offered respite. As he came closer, he saw that there was someone already at the well, hidden by a tree from the path. Her hair, long enough that the ends brushed against the earth, was the color of spun gold, and her skin as pale and fair as the twinflower. She trailed slender fingers in the water, careful not to dip the sleeve of her silver-white gown. Einarr stood, stunned by the sight. A whisper of surprise flitted across his mind that there would be anyone else on the mountain here.
He must have made a noise, because she looked up and smiled at him, not at all surprised for her part. Her high cheekbones and delicate ears lent an elfin grace to her face.
“I beg your pardon, my lady. I did not mean to disturb you.”
She laughed, a sound like the tinkling of silver bells. “I am not disturbed at all! Come, join me. The water is sweet, and the trail is yet long.”
“…Yes. I cannot stay long, but a few moments’ respite will be welcome.”
She smiled again and patted the stone in front of her knees. The smile was warm and welcoming, and yet Einarr thought she did not look happy. He joined her at the well and knelt to cup water with his hands and drink. Once his mouth was wet he looked over at his unexpected companion. “Is something the matter, my lady?”
“Of course not! The day is fine, the water is cool, and the company is charming.”
“As you say.” He turned now to sit on the lip of the well opposite her. It felt as though a shadow fell on the space he left between their knees, but it would be improper to sit nearer.
“You have come to see the Oracle?” She ventured.
“Isn’t that what brings most people up this way?”
“Yes,” she sighed, and her shoulders slumped.
“What troubles you, lady?”
“Only that it is a long and lonely life here on the mountain. I should dearly love the company of a strong young man such as yourself.” She looked at him sidelong and bit at her lower lip. The gesture was shy, but he saw none of that in her bearing. Einarr shook his head.
“Alas, dear lady, you will have to continue to hope. There is no denying your beauty, but my heart belongs to another.”
“Ah, no!” The sound was small, but unmistakably a wail. “Cruel fate indeed. As soon as I laid eyes on you, I thought to myself ‘here is a good man’ and set my heart on you. Can you not allow me just this morning to enjoy, even if that is all it can ever be?”
“I am sorry, lady. That would be unfair to my Runa, and cruel to yourself besides.” He stood, brushing the dust from his trousers. “I must be rejoining my friends. I am sorry to have disturbed you.”
As Einarr walked back toward the path he heard the tinkling of silver bells again.