The Shroud, Melja said, was stored in an inner chamber of the village’s temple to the gods. The morning, like most mornings on the island, was bright and clear even under the fluttering canopy of birch and ash as Melja led Einarr down an unfamiliar path.
The path sloped gently upward here, and the ground became less marshy as they went. Between the warm morning sun and the birdsong floating through the branches, Einarr was momentarily tempted to forget the serious errand they were on. With a sigh and a question he brought himself back to reality: “So why is the Shroud here, anyway?”
Melja did not answer for the space of a few strides. “It is imprisoned here, under the watchful gazes of god and runemaster alike.”
“But it’s an item?”
“Aye, so it is. And?”
“How do you imprison an item? It’s not like they go anywhere on their own.”
“Ordinarily, I would agree. But the Shroud seems to operate under its own set of rules. It took the finest runemasters of its day to catch the thing, and no few Art Practictioners besides, so if it starts to stir we reinforce its cage.”
Einarr made a noise like understanding and fell quiet. Melja had known he was a Cursebreaker before he ever agreed to teach Einarr, and was taking him out here anyway: perhaps Einarr was just being paranoid.
The path continued to rise in elevation, if slowly, and soon Einarr began to see oaks in among the ash and birch and beech. Around midmorning a clearing opened before them, broad as a field. At the far side, with the forest nestled comfortably behind it, stood an unassuming, whitewashed building with a pair of towers rising from its roof. The two men paused for a moment at the edge of this clearing.
Einarr, suddenly curious, asked “Who lives here?”
“This is Wotan’s temple, in the main, but also Tyr and Eira.”
“Eira, truly?” The Vidofnings tended to worship her, when they worshipped. Perhaps it was a good sign?
“Wotan is not the only god skilled at runecraft.”
“I suppose not.” Still, the pit in his stomach seemed to grow larger by another stone. He did not often offer up prayers to Eira, but as they neared the unassuming temple one passed his lips.
“Is something the matter?” One of Melja’s upswept eyebrows was raised even higher than usual.
Einarr shook his head. “Just – it’s been a long summer. Some of what I’ve been through already has me jumping at shadows, is all.”
Melja chuckled, not unkindly. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss those instincts: they could save your life one day. I have, however, taken extra precautions already this morning. Watch your step, do nothing in haste, and we’ll make it back to the village in one piece.”
“Of… of course.” Einarr knew Melja was probably right, but that did little to soothe his nerves as the big elf pulled open the temple doors.
Light slanted into the somewhat dusty chamber from behind them. At the far side of the room, a carving of Wotan in his sorceror’s robes, a raven perched on either shoulder, stood flanked by one-handed Tyr, the just, and merciful Eira, the healer.
Melja strode across the room, his eyes passing with long familiarity over the rows of benches, the statuary, and the pools of light beneath the windows. Einarr had no doubt the alfr would have seen instantly had something been amiss, and that thought was the one that finally allowed him to relax a little.
Melja led them past the priestly purification chamber and down a narrow, but well-made, wooden ladder into the cellar. Someone mortal evidently lived here: the cellar was filled with roots and aging mead. Einarr blinked a few times, and then realized they were not alone in the cellar.
Standing by the far wall was an alfr nearly as burly as Melja, a woodcutter’s axe at his hip and a scroll in hand. He greeted them in the tongue of the light elves.
Melja and Einarr returned the greeting – Einarr by rote, as one of the few phrases he had memorized since arriving at the Shrouded Village.
“Has anything changed?” Melja asked, his voice low.
“Not a thing. It seems restless in there, but not fully awake.”
“Good. The boy will be assisting me as part of his training. I need you to provide backup.”
The guard stepped aside, and Melja traced a complex series of runes Einarr could not track in front of the door. It swung open.
Inside, in the center of the room, a diaphanous crimson cloth lay tumbled over a table. Every now and then, as though a breeze tugged at it, the cloth would twitch. If he had not been prepared, Einarr would have thought it odd for a cloth to be stored in such a way and seen nothing else out of the ordinary. After a month’s training with Melja, however, his vision was more acute.
Concentric circles were inscribed on the floor about the table, and every one of them ringed with runes. The walls and ceiling, too. Einarr recognized the individual runes, of course, and could even work out what some of the combinations would do – but as he stared about the room he felt his jaw drop. This ward work was so far beyond anything Melja had even hinted at.
“The work of generations,” Melja volunteered. “Don’t let this intimidate you: reinforcing the wards is fairly straightforward.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. What do you need me to do?”
“First, focus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply with me.”
It was an exercise Melja had him do frequently, particularly when he judged a task more complicated than usual. This time, Melja joined him at it. With a long exhale, the alfr opened his eyes.
“Now we inspect what came before. The Shroud is forever testing its bonds, and while there are a few places more likely to show wear, we cannot take that for granted.”
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