With some reluctance, the Matrons of the Conclave invited in the alfr calling himself ‘friend’ to sit in their hall and discuss the matter. They were very specific as to the terms of the invitation – so much so that Einarr questioned Saetild’s assertion that he was merely a good-natured pest.
There was a comfortable rug spread on the floor near the hearth, where on cold winter evenings Einarr could imagine the old Matrons gathering to work their nalbinding and discuss business. Only one of these was happening that afternoon, with the golden-haired alfr standing in the middle of the plush fur and addressing the rest of them.
“Some time ago, I visited a village on an isle far to the west of here. I’ll not bore you with all the gory details of my trip, but I learned while I was there that many of the best elven rune-smiths had learned their craft there. It would be intensive training, but they might just be able to get you a basic working knowledge by the end of the summer.”
Einarr drew his brows down. “That takes me away from the Vidofnir for longer than I like…”
Some of the Matrons snorted, as though repressing laughter.
“My dear boy, some of the most brilliant alfish minds have taken years—”
Einarr held up a hand and shook his head. “I know, I know. The cost of learning is time.”
“On the subject of costs,” broke in the Matron who always reminded Einarr of an oak tree. “What price do they demand?”
“Hard labor, for the term of Einarr’s stay in the Shrouded Village.”
The oaken Matron drew down her brows now. “And what price do you ask?”
Ystävä smiled beatifically. “Oh, I am only too happy to help. You see, the favor he owes me requires the recovery of the Örlögnir, but will be greatly aided by a working knowledge of runes.”
To a woman the Matrons looked skeptical.
Ystävä went on, blithely unconcerned. “Besides, in this case the village elder will be paying me a finder’s fee. They have fewer pupils now than they’re used to.”
Einarr’s laugh came out like a bark. He was surprised to hear Saetild’s musical laugh join in.
“Perhaps you aren’t the mercenary I took you for after all,” she chuckled.
“I am exactly as I have always called myself.” The alfr didn’t quite manage to look offended, although he put on a good show of it.
“Be that as it may,” Einarr said, breaking in. “I’ve no objection to working for my supper, and on the whole this sounds like my best option. Only… how am I supposed to find this place, with only the name of a village to go by? And how do I rejoin my ship again at the end of it?”
“Well that, my boy, is the easy part. I am presuming, however, that you have arrangements to make before I whisk you off into parts unknown for the next few months.”
Two days later, at dawn, all was in readiness. Stigander, Jorir, and Runa hiked out to the edge of the Whispering Wood with Einarr to see him off. It was a cool morning, and streaks of cloud scudded across the lightening sky as they neared the waypoint.
“You’re sure I can’t convince you to keep on with us?” Stigander’s voice said he knew the answer to that question, but his pride required him to ask one more time anyway.
“You know I have to do this, Father. So many times since we left Attilsund, where the Oracle herself lamented my ignorance, I’ve run up against issues I needed runelore to solve. I’m not always going to have Reki or Runa to save me, after all. Besides, what the Vidofnir needs is to rebuild her crew and get some nice, healthy hauls, not be dragged into whatever weirdness my Calling manages to find next. I’ll meet up with you in the fall, at Kjell.”
Stigander nodded and clapped his son on the shoulder. They stood there a moment before Stigander threw reserve to the wind and embraced his son. “Be careful out there.”
“I will, Father. I’m looking forward to meeting the new crew when I come back.” He took a step back as Stigander’s arms loosened about his shoulders and turned his attention to Jorir.
“Are ye sure ye’d rather not have me along?”
Einarr laughed. “Would that I could. Even if Ystävä could take us both, though, and he was adamant he couldn’t, there’s something I need you to do for me.”
“Is it about that lad Arkja?”
Einarr nodded. “I’d planned on taking the summer to test his mettle, but obviously I can’t now. So I need you, and Vali if he doesn’t suddenly appear under my feet again, to make sure he’s someone I can take into my service without worry.”
“I would even if you hadn’t asked.”
“Thank you.” He thrust out his hand to the dwarf, who clasped it in a hearty handshake.
That only left Runa, who stood back a little from the others, looking half worried and half proud. He smiled at her. “Runa. Of all the faces I shall miss, yours looms largest.”
She nodded, then rushed forward to fling herself into his arms, and he held her close, inhaling her scent. “This is a wonderful thing you do,” she said into his chest. “Only, return to me safe when the season is over.”
“I will,” he murmured. “I will.” They’d had this exact conversation the night before, truth be told, but Einarr would not begrudge Runa another minute, or the one after that.
A throat cleared from behind him, towards the edge of the Wood. “This is all very touching,” Ystävä said. “But I’m afraid we must be going.”
Reluctantly Einarr lowered his arms, and reluctantly Runa stepped away from him. He shouldered his sack of belongings and turned to face the alfr. “I am ready.”
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