The scorched weed stood, accusing, before them.
“Show me what you drew, exactly.” Melja’s voice was more serious than Einarr had ever heard.
Einarr peered at the base of the weed, searching for his mark, but in their haste to stop the blaze it had been obscured. “It was sol, with five points. I will confess that the job was growing tedious, but…”
“Enough. I know what happened now. This is why it is critical to draw each rune with care, each and every time. Sol, drawn with four lines, becomes a pair of kaun, stacked atop each other, if not properly connected.”
“Kaun? That’s not one I’ve learned yet.”
“It is not, and that makes this partially my fault. Finish the weeding by hand today. Tomorrow we shall learn kaun, and the day after I will teach you some syntax.”
Einarr felt no great excitement or trepidation over the prospect of learning what Melja termed the “calamatous” rune, although to judge by the elf’s gloomy foreboding after the accident perhaps he should have. Still, he went to the day’s lesson as seriously as he had all the others, with perhaps the added hope of satisfying his curiosity.
The first thing Einarr learned about kaun actually had more to do with syntax than with the rune itself. His rune of warding had failed to contain the fire, and Melja’s had not, because it was his and because he had not drawn it first. Both were of his will, and guarding must always be seen to before destruction. Yet another reason to take extreme care with each inscription.
Furthermore, by doubling the rune as he had, however inadvertantly, he made the fire neither hotter nor more rapacious, but harder to put out. This, of course, would have been nonsense with any ordinary blaze, and Einarr said as much.
“What, of all you have learned these last weeks, has been otherwise?” Melja drawled. “A rune stacked atop itself creates a more durable effect. That is a second reason why your ward was powerless. In another place, or circumstance, that would have been a clever ward, if a simple one.”
Einarr pursed his lips, less pleased by the praise than he would have been on any earlier day. “Another place?”
“Yes, another circumstance.”
“But that’s not what you said. You said another place, like if I’d been foolish enough to make that error on board a ship my ward might have worked.”
Melja sighed. “Yes. Yes, it might have. Because of the Shroud, you see?”
“No, I don’t see. What is the Shroud? Why is this the Shrouded Village?” The perfect opportunity for the questions that had been gnawing at him since his arrival. There would never be a better opportunity to insist on some answers.
Melja gathered himself up as though to rebuke Einarr. He stared imperiously down at him for a long moment before appearing to deflate. “No, I really do have to answer that now, I suppose,” he muttered.
Einarr just looked at him, expectant.
“Very well. The Shroud has not been relevant to our students in a very long time. Most are too incurious to even ask about the name, most of the rest let themselves be put off. But, I suppose there are reasons you were named a Cursebreaker. The Shroud is not what binds our village to Midgardr, but it is why we are bound here. It is also why we stress caution in dealing with the kaun rune. —There will, incidentally, be no practice tonight.”
Einarr nodded, eager to be past the expected revelation.
“The Shroud has not been active for a very long time, thanks in no small part to this village. We are still watching for signs, but I do not believe your… misadventure yesterday awoke it, either.”
At that Einarr raised an eyebrow, but kept silent. He had no intention of interrupting, not over such a minor overstatement.
“The Shroud… reacts to the use of the kaun rune. Violently. No one is sure exactly why. But when it does, nothing is safe from its wrath. This village does not exist to teach runes: it exists to guard the Shroud.”
Einarr frowned. “So, what happens when kaun is invoked away from the island?” He was certain he had seen that shape before – at the Tower of Ravens, he thought.
“Oh, the effect is reduced, somewhat. We think there is some distance past which it doesn’t matter, but we’ve never had a good way of figuring that out – not that didn’t involve deliberately trying to awake the thing.”
So. Either those kaun runes in the tower didn’t matter at all, or every time some fool tried it they risked – what, exactly? Somehow, though, he couldn’t see such a concern stopping Wotan from defending his tower as he pleased.
Which meant that, even here, Einarr was about to be neck-deep in a curse of some kind. With a sigh, he asked the only question that mattered just then: “What does the Shroud do?”
“It consumes. Such is the nature of fire, after all.”
Training, after that, went on as usual. The village continued to keep a wary eye on the Shroud, but no more was said to Einarr after he had been taught of the rune and its existence. Einarr now knew all but a handful of the single runes, and the first rudiments of combining them. And it had only been a month.
He wanted to be pleased with his progress, but the existence of an item like the Shroud, so close to him with his accursed Calling, made him uneasy. So it was with resignation more than any great surprise that he greeted the news, at the end of that month, that the Shroud was stirring.
Only stirring, Melja said, as though Einarr’s very presence did not portend disaster there. It was decided: the next day’s lesson would be on wards, and Einarr would learn to reinforce the ones set on the Shroud.
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