It was unmistakeably the same material as the Shroud. Oddly, it did not feel hot to the touch, nor did it burn anything else it came in contact with. For whatever reason, once separated from the whole there was no more magic in it.
This was just as well, Einarr figured, but ultimately unimportant. What mattered to him was the rough, ragged edge that seemed stretched in places. That meant the torn edge of the Shroud should also be ragged and stretched, and thus (he hoped) easier to track.
Or, a voice whispered in the back of his head, you could take the scrap back to your Master in the village and let them divine its location, like old Geiti said they could.
He might find it faster that way, he supposed, but it was still an unworthy thought. He shook his head. “I’ve been spending too much time around magicians,” he muttered.
No matter what Melja said, he was partly responsible for the Shroud’s release – however unintended it was. And the Shroud was in the process of killing its way across the island, to what purpose Einarr could not guess. He owed it to the Shrouds victims to at least try to discover their fates. Then they could be properly mourned, if not buried, and the restless dead would not trouble the island. Thus resolved, he shoved the scrap of cloth in the pouch at his belt and began peering at foliage and twigs, looking for burned ends.
Now that he knew what he was looking for, the signs were there to be found: a singed sprig of leaves here, a blackened blaze against the white bark of a birch there (and when he found that, he blessed the chief whose son they had found). Had the Shroud not been wounded, as it were, it would not have left such a sloppy trail.
Or, would it? He had no idea what drove the thing. Did it even care that it had been torn? He fingered the scrap of cloth in his pouch. Perhaps it would be best to go back to the village after all. After half a day of tracking it as it floated, seemingly aimless among the trees, he began to wonder.
He stopped and closed his eyes. If he were here, what would Jorir tell me? Had it been less than a season since the svartdvergr swore to him under suspicious circumstances? The dwarf had proven his worth – even his loyalty and his friendship – many times over already. Einarr smiled, because he already knew the answer to that: it had been Jorir’s voice before, telling him to go back to the village. He took a deep breath —
—And smelled smoke. Not faint and damp and faded, like he had been all day, but fresh and pungent woodsmoke. His eyes snapped open and he began to run, following his nose, toward the source of the smell.
Einarr could hardly believe his eyes. He had thought the Shrouded Village to be the only hidden village on the island, but here before him stood the smoking ruin of another. Had it been on the coast, he would have assumed a particularly vicious group of raiders, but he was still in the middle of the hardwood forest that seemed to dominate this island.
Here and there a timber jutted out, but little else remained beyond charred rubble. Einarr stopped at the edge of the village, frozen. Was this…
A sound of sobbing came from further into the village, and Einarr was moving again. Someone survived this?
The sound came from what must have once been the village green, but now was a scene of horror as herb-witches and whoever in the village had an ounce of song magic tended to the bodies still living among the rows of corpses. The sobbing he had heard came from a group of small children, huddled together near the edge of the green for comfort.
He left the children to comfort each other: likely their parents were among the dead. What little he knew about the Shroud said it had not done this, and yet he could not think the smell of smoke would be this fresh had the thief somehow ransacked the village by himself. An old woman was placing thin copper coins over where a man’s eyes used to be: he approached her.
“Honored grandmother… what happened here?”
She looked up sharply and squinted at him for a long moment. “Ye be a stranger. What brings ye?”
“I hunt the Shroud.”
“Then on the right track ye be. Old Snor’s home was the worst burnt, and the first, and still no sign of Snor.”
Einarr stared around them for a long moment. “All of this, from one man’s house?”
“’Tis a long story, an’ a sad one, but if’n you hunt the thing that started it, best be on wit’ ye. This village is finished, but at least we’ll be avenged.”
“I understand, grandmother. Good fortune to you all…” It felt ridiculous to wish it, and yet what else was he to do? Condolences from a stranger would only ring hollow. But he would see them avenged, that was certain. Them and all the other victims on the island.
He took his time leaving the village, scouring the forest border all the way around until he was certain he knew which direction the Shroud went. The smell of burnt thatch and charred flesh stung his nose the entire time.
When he left, though it was not West, towards the sea, after the Shroud. There was still too much he didn’t know, too many questions, for him to be out chasing it through the forest. He would take word, and the scrap, to Melja. And tonight he would carve the first of his three runestones: ᚨ. After all, he wouldn’t necessarily have a dwarf to rely on all the time, either.
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