Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.
Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.
The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”
“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”
To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”
“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”
Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.
“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”
When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.
Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”
“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.
Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”
Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.
All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.
Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”
She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”
“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”
The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”
“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”
Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”
“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”
She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”
Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.
“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”
Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”
“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”
“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”
The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”
“Hazel and ivory.”
“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”
“I’m supposed to know that, how?”
“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”
“…I think I’m beginning to.”
“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”
More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.
“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”
Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”
Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.
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