Reki came to dinner the evening after their fragrant baths looking satisfied with herself, and Runa came looking chastened. Einarr felt a little sorry for her: if she had spent the entirety of his quest to the Jotünhall in seclusion, as he believed she had, surely this was unnecessary? Moments later, he remembered what he had been told about “tuning,” and felt a little less sorry. Shaking his head, he swung a leg over the bench to take a seat next to his betrothed anyway. The smell of lavender tickled his nose, but on her it brought a smile to his eye.
He set to on the night’s stew, but this was not to be a night for eating and conversing amongst themselves – or with the other apprentices, as he had learned the young women universally were. The oaken crone, the leader of their Circle of Elders, stood at the head of the table as they were eating.
“It is good, from time to time, to have visitors from the Clans. It ensures that we do not grow so wrapped up in our own matters that we forget the wider world. However, brief though it was, on the morrow it will be time for our guests to depart. A matter of no small urgency has been brought to our attention, and while they seek the tools they need to fix it, so have we preparations to make. Do not fail in your quest, and return to us when you have completed it.”
Reki stood. “Honored Amma, you have our thanks. Even were it not for the quest, I should beg our leave of you in the morning. There are many more men who were exposed to the corruption you discovered in us back in port.”
The old woman inclined her head. “Then go forth. Speak with Sor down on the docks: tell him we sent you, and that you require one of his fishing boats. A longship is too large to gain entrance to the Tower.”
Einarr swallowed and wiped his moustache before answering. “My thanks, honored Amma.”
Quiet fell again around the hall as everyone returned to eating. As the low buzz of conversation started back up, Runa elbowed Einarr to get his attention.
“I’m coming with you,” she muttered into her bowl.
He, too, kept his voice low and his face forward as he replied. “Is this something the Matrons have decreed?”
“Something I have decided myself.”
“I’m against it. Who knows what we’ll run into there.”
“I have an idea. You’ll need me.”
“No.” It was far too dangerous. She did not push him farther, but he would have to watch her.
The next morning, when the sky was still the pale blue of early morning, the nine set out for East Port and their waiting companions. As early as it was, though, Reki and Runa both rushed about as though they wanted to be gone an hour before.
“Easy, now,” Trabbi was saying. “It’s not like a few extra minutes is going to kill anyone.”
“Are you sure about that?” Reki snapped.
“Enough.” Einarr stepped in. “We do need to hurry, but racing about like this isn’t helping anyone. Who are we still waiting on, anyway?”
“One of your porters,” Barri drawled.
“Then we’re not waiting on anyone.” Sivid sounded reluctant. “Saetild wanted to keep him behind, said he was worse off than the rest of us. Not that it makes much sense to me.”
“Amma Saetild is one of the best among us with medicine and the healing songs. If she wishes to keep the man behind, there’s a reason. Thus, let’s be off. The sooner we’re back in port, the sooner I can treat everyone else.” Reki scooped up her pack and strode down the path toward the forest, not waiting to see if anyone else followed.
One by one, led by Einarr, they did, and soon were walking beneath the canopy of oak leaves once more. The morning light filtered through the leaves above, turning subtly green. The atmosphere in the forest this morning did much to lift Einarr’s spirits. After the cleansing he’d had at the hands of the Matrons the lingering unease from the battle against the cult had finally faded – reason enough for cheer, he thought. And if evading Wotan’s spies to steal his wife’s distaff was perhaps one of the more foolish things he had ever tried, it felt more like a game than like a matter of life or death.
A rustling from out in the woods caught his attention, and Runa’s voice called out from its direction. “Einarr, come see!”
He blinked, and looked behind him down the path. Einarr did not see Runa there, nor ahead when he double-checked. With a shrug, he turned off in the direction of her voice. May as well see what she wants.
The path opened before him, lusher and more full of life than the road had been, and he wondered why the road did not pass through this way, instead.
“Oh, Einarr, it’s wonderful!”
What could she possibly have found in a forest like this? She couldn’t have been off the path for more than a few minutes. …And why couldn’t he see her yet? “Runa? Where are you hiding?”
“I’m just over here, in a clearing.”
This was beginning to seem strange, but Runa did have a fondness for pranks. This was exactly the sort of thing he could see her doing back in her father’s holdings.
…Only they weren’t on Kjell island. And both Singers had warned them against leaving the road in the Whispering Wood. Einarr stopped in his tracks. In every direction, all he could see was lush greenery, very little of which he recognized. I am an idiot.
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