Einarr stumbled a little as their captors shoved him into what looked like a duelling arena, or perhaps a Thinghall – although, as with the camp fire, Einarr was puzzled what possible use forest spirits could have for such a thing. The floor was ringed with log benches polished more from use than craft, and other than the open door at his back there was only a single, guttering torch for light. In the center of the open, packed-dirt stage in the middle of the room, Jorir, Erik and Irding were just turning to look at who the newcomer might be.
“Ah, there y’are!” Jorir exclaimed.
Runa stepped up beside him, and the door behind them closed, leaving the five with only the flickering light of the nearly dead torch, and no sign of this “Auna.”
“We’re all in one place, at least.” Smiling a little, Einarr scanned the faces of his companions and saw no sign of injury there. “How did they get you three? And why were you separated from Runa?”
“Ah, well, you see…” Erik started, and even in the poor light Runa looked sheepish.
Irding picked up what Erik was plainly reluctant to say, sounding mostly annoyed. “We got out of those blasted tangle-vines, whatever they were, and started trying to follow after you. Then the Lady here spotted a second of the naked women, only this one seemed to be beckoning us on. Led us on a merry little chase – or, rather, led her on a merry chase, with us following. Only Runa kept getting farther and farther ahead, no matter how we tried to hurry, until we couldn’t see her anymore. We couldn’t exactly leave the little princess alone like that, so we started searching. Only instead of your fair lady, we found the bottom of a pit.”
Runa cleared her throat. “In my defense, I thought I heard you all behind me the entire time. Right until I ended up surrounded by huldrekall with spears.”
Einarr shook his head at the ground, stifling the growl that tried to build in his throat. “Well. We’re all here now, and I think if they wanted us dead we’ve played the fool enough we already would be. So. Did any of you manage to find out who this Woodsman is?”
Jorir nodded. “He’s the one they’re fighting for control of the forest. And based on what I’ve seen, it’s’ not going well.”
“But is he a person? Another spirit? Some sort of monster?”
The others could only shrug, and now Einarr did growl in frustration.
“If you are truly not spies for our enemy, perhaps you would be willing to prove it?” A tall woman sauntered out from the darkness, slender as an elf, her hips swaying with every step although the hair on her head was the yellow of old needles and her face was craggy like bark. The old huldra’s voice made Reki’s seem common.
Einarr elbowed Irding, who was staring. Even with Runa there, Einarr found it difficult to keep his eyes on her weathered face. “You are Auna, then? If it is within our power,” he answered. “Should we help you, however, there is certain assistance we would require.”
The old huldra raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? How very mercenary of you. How did you come to be on this island?”
Einarr outlined the last two days in short, staccato phrases, wholly unsuited for storytelling. Then again, this was not a fireside, and he did not care to regale his captor.
As he finished, Auna laughed. “At least you do not expect me to call you poor unfortunates. You’ll need more than a new mast if you want even to try to break free of this place, but I wonder if you have the stomach even for that much.”
Einarr bristled, but she allowed no opening for any of them to object.
“My people are locked in a battle for control over this forest with a dark spirit known to some as a leshy. The Woodsman, we call him, though he is no man.”
Runa shook her head when Einarr glanced her way: not a creature she was familiar with, then.
“This is a battle we are losing. Should the rå be driven from this wood, so will everyone other than the Woodsman and his dark minions – his puppets, really, as they seem to be not so much creatures as extensions of his will. My people seek harmony with the others on the island, but the Woodsman is always red in tooth and claw.”
Her… people. So the hulder were just as much flesh and blood as the elves, then? Einarr supposed that made sense, given the surprises he’d seen thus far. “So what would you have us do?”
“A spell is known to us that will impede the Woodsman’s power so long as it is in place. We would have you go into the center of it’s domain and inscribe it.”
Erik scratched at his beard. “A… spell, you say? Like, some special song?”
“I suppose one might call it a poem.” Auna trailed off then, as though hesitating. “You do all know the runes, of course?”
The men all shook their heads as Runa opened her mouth. “Only I, I fear. Is that insufficient?”
Auna shrugged. “So long as the task is done, I find I care little how you accomplish it. But the lines must be inscribed in the stone at the entrance to the Woodsman’s lair and incanted while he is absent, and I no longer have the numbers to send one of my own with you. Once that is done, though, my people can handle the rest.”
The leader of the huldra grinned, then, and it was a look that set Einarr’s hackles on end. He swallowed. “Give us the spell, then. One way or another, we’ll see it done.”
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