6.10 – Grasping Branches

As though on cue, the forest itself seemed to come alive around them. The grass and the twining berry vines that trailed along the ground reached up to grab his boots, and the bushes and brambles around the clearing began to visibly grow into a wall. So much for not attracting attention.

“Run!” Einarr suited words to action and sprinted for the far edge, around the bear, hoping the others would be quick enough to outpace the rapidly coiling plant matter. Runa he had no fear for, as she still sat on his shoulders.

Erik practically stepped on his heels, he was so close, and Jorir was right behind him. There came a crash of breaking branches and a curse from Irding. Einarr turned in time to see the man’s axe raised high.

“Irding, no!”

It was too late. The iron axe blade chopped down into the vegetation and Irding, his breathing heavy, surged forward.

The branches redoubled their growth, seeming to reach after him like grasping claws. Einarr had not been certain until that moment that using a weapon would draw any more attention than wrestling the bear-creature had, but here was the proof. The forest around them erupted into raucous chaos. Crows cawed from all around. Wolves howled. Bears roared – although not from just behind them, thankfully. And even over all of that, Einarr would swear he could hear the plants that hindered them growing.

Irding’s face was pale and pained, and his breath came heavy. Einarr frowned.

“Erik. Carry him.”

The big man grunted, and without waiting for Irding’s inevitable refusal scooped his son up over his shoulder like a sack of cabbages.

Irding gasped in pain, but they had no time to resettle. “Bear with it,” Erik grumbled, and they were off again.

Einarr had no idea how long they’d run before the grasping vines slackened their pace, as though unsure of where their quarry had gone after such a long chase. Einarr had no doubt the plants had been hunting them. Had anything else? He shook his head as he slowed to a jog, and then a stop. “I think we’re clear.”

“For now, maybe,” Runa said. “Are you ever going to put me down?”

Einarr dropped to one knee and unwrapped his arm from around her legs. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten he was carrying her – the weight of another human on his shoulder was not something he could forget while running – but this was the first moment they’d had to pause and catch their breath. Runa trailed her fingers along the line of his jaw as she slipped gracefully down. It was thanks enough, so far as he was concerned.

Erik raised a hand to his forehead and looked around. Irding appeared to have passed out during the run. “Does anyone happen to know if we were even running in the right direction?”

Einarr was reasonably certain they had started out in the right direction, at least, but once they were moving his biggest concern had been keeping them out of the clutches of the forest. He shook his head. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t tell you if we’re any closer to the lair or nay,” Jorir said, pointing off to their right. “But I’m pretty sure we need to head that way.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow before turning to look. “You mean because it looks the darkest and most impassable?”

Jorir nodded. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t it?”

Erik hummed, stepping over to a moderately clear space on the forest floor. “Maybe so. But there’s something else we need to take care of first.”

Kneeling, Erik slung his unconscious son down as gently as he could. “Going to need all of us to keep the lady safe, I think.”

Einarr felt an irrational stab of annoyance. If Irding hadn’t drawn his axe, they would not have been put to flight, and he had only been slowed because he had fought poorly, earlier. Frowning, he shook off such dark thoughts. “Not like none of us have ever been reckless before, right? Runa, will you see what you can do for him?”

She hummed and moved to kneel beside the injured man. With practiced motions – more practiced than he had expected, honestly – she examined his chest under the battered maille. A few minutes later, she shook her head.

“You were right. He broke a rib when the bear was tossing him around like a rag doll.” She cast an accusatory look at Erik. “If you’d been able to carry him more gently, I might be able to Sing him back into the fight, but its aggravated now. We’ll need to set it, and if we cannot let it heal naturally it will weaken him.”

Erik shook his head. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself, my boy.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. “How’s your leg?”

Erik harrumphed but said nothing. He was spared further commentary when Irding awakened with a gasp and a groan.

“Good. Ye’re awake,” Jorir grumbled. “At least now you can look after yerself.”

“Can you set the break?” Einarr thought the chances were good Irding would have to do a fair bit more than hide in a tree to look after himself once Runa began her part. Runa and Jorir both shook their heads.

“Not without bringing the wrath o’ the wood back down on our heads, I think.”

Irding sat up with a grimace and frowned down at the maille now laying on the forest floor beside him. “Surely there must be some way. A sore chest never stopped me before…”

An idea struck Einarr. “Belts. Rethread your weapons on your belts, and we’ll use our baldrics. That should help, shouldn’t it?”

Runa hesitated, thinking it over, before nodding. “It should work. Take off your shirt, Irding.”

“Quickly now. If there were wolves on our trail, we won’t know it until we’re surrounded. The sooner we’re moving, the better.”


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6.11 – Coming Soon

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6.9 – Bear

A roar reverberated through the trees as the creature caught the scent of humans. Its unnatural red eyes started directly at Einarr and its lip curled up in a snarl, revealing massive fangs.

Einarr slid Sinmora from her sheath. Avoiding the bear was not an option, not now that it has seen them, not with the look of madness in its eyes.

Erik and Irding moved up to flank him, their axes in hand. Good.

Runa stepped up behind them then, and the sweet soprano of her voice carried past them. It was not the fury-song, however. Instead, she sang to end the rage – not for them but for the bear.

It swayed on its feet as though drunk, Runa’s song warring with some other influence. The Woodsman’s, perhaps?

The horned creature began to look drowsy, and Einarr nudged Irding to begin circling around.

Immediately the possessed bear’s eyes snapped to follow the movement, wide awake again. The three men froze, and Runa’s song grew louder and more insistent. Einarr’s mind was clear, his body relaxed, but even his eyelids began to feel heavy.

Erik sighed loudly, replacing his axe in its loop on its belt, and rolled his shoulders back to limber them. “We don’t have time for this.”

“I don’t think so, old man.” Irding cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got this one.”

Erik opened his mouth as though to protest, but evidently thought better of it. He folded his arms as his son readied himself.

With a primal yell, Irding charged into the clearing as though into a glíma ring. The bear lowered its head, ready to toss its assailant with its massive stag horns. Irding clinched with the beast, grabbing hold by those selfsame horns. Then followed a test of strength, with each grappler attempting to throw the other.

Had Irding wrestled a stag soothed by the song magic, he might have had a chance. A bear with antlers, however, was still fundamentally a bear – song magic or no. The creature twisted its head down and Irding lost his footing. Only for a moment, but that was all it took for one massive paw to send him flying for the edge of the clearing.

Einarr nearly started forward to help, but a cry from Runa kept him from it. The foliage writhed and twisted towards her feet, and even with Jorir’s help it was all he could do to keep her free of the bramble and focused on the song.

Erik took half a step forward, but Irding was not to be defeated so easily. Already he was rising from the ground, beating the needles from his trousers as he watched the bear, waiting for an opening. When the bear stumbled again, he rushed in low.

Having failed to best the creature locked with its antlers, Irding sought to get in close for the second round. Erik’s jaw dropped as he realized what his son – correction, his idiot son – intended, but it was too late to stop him.

The bear caught Irding in a hook with its front paw and tossed him up in the air, rearing up to continue playing with its prey. When the creature had reached its full height, just before it could slam Irding back down to the ground with another swipe of its paw, Erik’s shoulder impacted with its belly.

The bear looked down, somewhat perplexed by the not-furry creature that now had its arms wrapped around the bear’s middle.

Irding tumbled to the ground, only a little more gracefully than a sack of onions.

The bear roared again, giving off the impression of a shrug, but before it could wrap its forelegs about Erik’s back the big man had slipped out from beneath the creature’s grasp.

Irding rose to his feet unsteadily, but the strange creature’s attention was still on Erik even as it fought off the effects of Runa’s song.

A note of panic was rising in Runa’s voice. Certain, now, that the other two had the creature well in hand, Einarr turned his full attention to the vines that crept around their feet. Tendrils had begun to grip the leg of his trousers, and Jorir was tearing at several that had begun to wrap about Runa’s legs. And this is when the Woodsman isn’t paying attention?

A quick yank had his feet free again, and he joined Jorir in tearing at the vines that converged on Runa. Einarr questioned, at this point, whether her singing was doing any good, but judging by her expression something was actively fighting her attempt to put the Woodsman’s servant to sleep.

The bear gave a roar, and Einarr risked another glance over at the other fight. Irding had locked its horns in the clinch again, but this time his father lay on the creature’s back in a very familiar posture to Einarr: It was much the same move he had used to knock out the fimbulvulf on Svartlauf. The bear, between the lack of air to breathe and the song designed to induce relaxation, was losing the fight to remain conscious.

With a nod, Einarr turned back to his still-singing fiancée and pursed his lips in thought. Nodding, he scooped Runa up by the waist and set her on his shoulders. Vines trailed from her skirt, but of the ordinary kind that did not writhe under their own power. He kicked his feet to keep the vines from getting a grip on his own legs and moved toward the clearing where Erik and Irding were lowering the now-unconscious bear creature to the forest floor.

Irding looked pale, and he breathed heavily, but he insisted to Einarr and Erik both that the was fine.

“If you say so…” Einarr did not bother to hide his dubiousness, but Irding waved him off again.

Before they set off into the forest again, he turned to Runa. “Keep an eye on him, would you? I suspect he’s broken something.”

Runa nodded. “Of course. But not, I think, a something the herb-witches or apothecaries would be able to do much about.”

Einarr grumbled. “Time to move on, people, before we draw any more attention to ourselves.”


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6.8 – Infiltration

The difference between the Woodsman’s territory and that the hulder still clung to was stark and immediate. It was more than the absence of signs of fighting: in the area around the hulder village, the wood was open, like a well-tended garden. It looked as though man and beast alike would have been able to gain what they needed from the forest. Where the leshy controlled, however, was a riot of plant life and swarming bugs, so thick that anything larger than a rabbit would need to pick their way carefully through the underbrush in places.

Einarr frowned, wishing not for the first time that putting Erik and Jorir in the lead to cut their way through wouldn’t draw the leshy’s attention. Unfortunately, however, he was even more certain now than he had been before that the spirit was a stone-fisted tyrant who kept a careful watch over his demesne. This had been reinforced as they stepped across the battle-lines to see months’ worth of growth over land that had been fought over within the last few nights.

The bramble that spread before him presented no easy answer, of course. The thorny vines climbed not only the nearby trees but each other, weaving together in a chest-high mat that may as well have been a wall. It was the third such blockage they had run across, on three separate attempts to penetrate past a ledge they could just see on the other side.

“Is it just me, or are these vines following us?”

“Based on what we’ve already seen?” Jorir’s answer sounded mildly winded, and just as annoyed as Einarr felt. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Does that mean the creature already knows we’re coming, though?”

Erik grunted. “If he does, he doesn’t know what we intend. Otherwise we’d be fighting our way through.”

The sound of breaking branches and tearing vines signaled Irding’s less-than-graceful descent from a nearby tree. “The ledge curves around toward us just further on. I think we might be able to get through the vines there.”

Einarr took a deep breath, nodding. There was no point getting upset about the noise, not at this point. Not since he was pretty sure the Woodsman had known they were coming for hours now. “Worth a shot, then.”

Back through the brush they went, and once again Einarr would swear the plants were moving to impede their progress. He was not – yet – irritated enough to begin hacking his way through, but his fingers twitched.

Irding led the way this time, since he had the most recent lay of the land, and while there was much grumbling and cursing about the underbrush Einarr could not argue that his more direct route was slower than picking their way through easier paths. Or less effective: the vines, by the time they reached the ledge, did climb up and over it. However, where they went over the ledge, the vines were much lower to the ground, allowing just enough space for the five of them to hurry across.

The vines began to coil, snake-like, as Einarr half-leaped across. Erik followed next and the mat grew visibly taller. Jorir followed hot on his heels, and then Einarr offered a steadying hand for Runa. Even as she made the leap a vine reached up and thorns tore at her skirt.

Irding was the only one left, and now the vines were knee-high and still climbing visibly. The tall young man took a step and a half backwards before running forward to vault over the climbing hedge.

Irding stumbled a little at the landing and winced as he straightened himself.

“You all right?” Einarr asked.

The other man nodded perfunctorily. “Just a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”

“We should keep going, then.” Einarr started off again, deeper into the woods and away from the creeping hedge. The others followed close behind, Runa muttering under her breath the entire time as she ran through the instructions she’d been given.

The light that filtered through the canopy was dim now, the leaf cover above so thick the sky was not even visible in slivers. They pressed on through this until their thighs burned from the exertion of pressing through underbrush.

Einarr stopped and held up a hand for silence. Erik nearly collided with him, but no more than another heartbeat passed before Jorir quieted Runa.

The birdcalls had stopped. Up until that moment, the birds had not seemed to care that they existed, but now the forest stood in silence. Einarr strained his ears for the disturbance and came up empty, although his hackles stood on end. It felt as though something were watching them. Whatever it was, it felt hungry.

Something growled from off in the underbrush, something that was neither wolf nor bear nor lynx, and then the presence faded.

Einarr shrugged off the feeling of a lingering presence. “I think the Woodsman wants us to know he’s watching.”

“So it seems.” Jorir sounded just as unnerved as Einarr felt, for which Einarr was grateful.

“We’ve done nothing to his forest,” Erik reminded them. “He should have no reason to attack us.”

“Nothing except venture into his territory. That sounded like ‘go away’ to me.”

“You’re not wrong, milord.” Jorir’s eyes still scanned the forest around them, but the threat had passed. “Under other circumstances, I’d be inclined to oblige.”

“Under other circumstances, I’d agree. Let’s go.” Einarr heeded his own suggestion and started moving again, wading between a pair of shrubs that reached to his hip because there was no other route.

They had not gone much farther on when they spotted what passed for a clearing in the Woodsman’s territory. In the interest of a moment’s respite, and the vain hope that it might be the clearing they sought, Einarr steered his companions towards it. This clearing, however, contained no cave. Instead, its lone inhabitant was a massive brown bear. A bear, it should be noted, with stag’s antlers and red eyes.


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6.7 – A Nearly Peaceful Night

Auna left them in the meeting hall under heavy guard after giving Runa the lines she would have to inscribe. She, then, wandered off into a corner of the room, muttering under her breath. From the cadence, it sounded as though she were practicing. There had been nothing to write the spell in, after all, save perhaps the dirt of the floor – and under the circumstances that would be dangerous.

Irding let out a long, heavy sigh and lay back on one of the benches in the room, his hands folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Erik folded his legs under him where he stood and pulled out his axe and whetstone. The blade was still dulled from the fight against the stenjätte, but he had ceased to grumble about it more than a week ago. Jorir likewise sat, but he began with a careful inspection of the chains of his maille. Einarr knew he should do the same, but restlessness seized his legs. He paced.

Occasionally he would catch one of the others looking at him, but there was no point explaining himself. He wasn’t even sure he understood why he could not sit still. After a while, when there was still a little light filtering in from around the door, Runa followed a scowl (for distracting her) by beckoning him over. The sound of his boots scraping against the dirt paused long enough for her to pat the ground next to where she sat.

Einarr folded his legs under him to sit next to his beloved. “What can I help with?”

“That is actually exactly what I was about to ask you. You’ve been worrying over something for ages now. Talk to me?”

“I-” he started to deny it, but stopped himself. He couldn’t do that – not with Runa. He laughed a little at the realization. “This has been the longest summer ever.”

“It will be over soon enough.”

“Maybe too soon. We need to get you back to Kjell before the ice sets in.”

Runa hummed. “Ideally. But I think the Matrons might have a way of getting a message back if we can’t.”

Einarr stared at her then. “Song can do that?”

Runa shook her head. “No, not song. I don’t really understand it, myself – I’m still technically an apprentice, after all. But I also don’t think that’s really what’s been worrying you.”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “It is and it isn’t. It seems like ever since the Oracle named me a Cursebreaker, things have gone… strange. Maybe even before, I guess. That Valkyrie ship was awfully far north. And it’s been all we can do to make it through to the next fireball.”

“That’s because you’re a Cursebreaker.” Runa’s voice was soft as she stared off into the distance of the far wall.

“And Cursebreakers always end badly. The ones we remember go out in a blaze of glory… but if I’m honest I’d rather find my own glory.”

Runa nodded, slowly.

“Somehow, though, the way the Oracle was talking I thought the calling might come with some sort of ability to actually do it.”

Runa’s laugh was rueful. “If only. They might live a little longer then. No, to be named Cursebreaker is almost a curse in and of itself. You’ve already survived longer than most.”

He groaned. The Oracle had taken his firstborn in payment. Would she have accepted that if she thought he wouldn’t survive to have a child? That wasn’t worth dwelling on right now, though. “Right. And immediately after we left Attilsund, we had to deal with an island full of ghosts. And then was your rescue. And now there are two ships’ worth of people waiting for us to get back with the cure to whatever the cultists did to us, and I get us cast away here.”

“Doing well so far.”

Einarr harrumphed. Before he knew what he really wanted to ask her, the sound of fighting filled the break in their conversation. He paused, listening. “We’re in no danger. But the hulder will want us to hurry once they let us out of here.”

Erik hummed in agreement. “Sounds vicious out there. I’ll be glad of a sharp blade and solid maille when we leave.”

“Subtle. Real subtle.” Irding still stared at the ceiling.

“He doesn’t need to be,” Einarr said. “He’s right. We’d do well to check our things.” Suiting action to words, Einarr joined the older men in inspection and repair.

***

When morning came, all was once again quiet in the forest. Einarr had slept, albeit restlessly. He suspected no-one else had done better, though. To sleep when the battle raged outside went against the grain – but this once, that was not their role. They were all ready and waiting when the door once again opened to admit the unsmiling figure of Auna.

“Are you prepared?”

Einarr met her gaze levelly. “As ready as we can be. How will we know when we near the Woodsman’s lair?”

“The darkness will grow lighter, and what once tripped you will draw back into open space. Within this clearing there will be a cave, and it is around the mouth of this cave where you must inscribe the spell. Once the Woodsman realizes you are there, what you are doing, you will be in great danger.”

“I would expect no less,” Runa said, lifting her chin in defiance – not of Auna, certainly, but perhaps the odds.

“Then fortune favor you. Should you succeed where we have failed, we will count you a friend to our people.”

Einarr inclined his head respectfully towards the elder huldra. “We will be off, then. Good fortune to you, as well.”

Auna stepped out of the doorway, and Einarr led the others back out into the forest.

The previous night’s battle had encroached on unscarred land. Einarr frowned and picked up the pace: as reluctant as he was to re-enter the Woodsman’s territory, he was more reluctant to allow the creature its victory by inches over the hulder. Ahead, the wood grew dark.


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If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.6 – Guardians of the Forest

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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If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.5 – Capture

“Wait!” Einarr called out even as he took half a step back. He lifted a knee high up to his chest and stepped over the bramble that had ensnared him, and even then it nearly knocked his back leg out from under him. The fleeing woman did not even glance back over her shoulder. Hair the color of pine needles streamed behind her as she ran, miraculously not snagging in anything.

“Go.” Runa jerked her chin toward the girl. “The huldra may be able to help us.”

Einarr did not hesitate: he ducked his chin down in a nod and kept it there as he dashed after the forest spirit. Why did she flee? And why was she letting him see her while she fled? Something was very wrong in this forest. He tried again: “We’re not your enemies!”

The huldra (if that’s what Runa said she was, that’s what she was) didn’t even slow when she cut to the right. Einarr followed, hurdling a bush. Almost immediately he had to duck a low branch, and then jump another bramble. At least none of those reached out to grab him.

She led him a merry chase in this way. A third time he tried – “We just want to talk!” – and a third time he was ignored.

Or so it appeared. Her trail led him into a small clearing, one where sunlight actually reached the forest floor. Just past the far side of the clearing, she stopped and turned to face him, one hand raised toward her face as though she were still frightened. Einarr thundered to a stop in the middle of the clearing, his breath coming heavy after the unexpected race. He opened his mouth to thank her, but the words would not come.

Stepping out of the shadows of the trees were more figures, their skin also the color of bark, and their hair of leaves, but where the huldra was buxom and nude, these were to a one long-nosed, hideous, and male, with loincloths tied about their waists below their sunken chests and stooping shoulders. Each and every one of them in the circle had a spear lowered at Einarr’s breast. An ambush, then? But these were hulder, and according to Afi they were spirits that could be reasoned with – even, under the right circumstances, friendly.

He raised open hands to his shoulders. “We mean you no harm.”

One of the huldrekall stepped forward, his spear still ready should Einarr make a false move. It spoke, its voice nasal and sneering. “So you claim. We watched as you were welcomed into The Woodsman’s territory.”

Einarr knit his brow. The Woodsman? “I’m afraid I don’t know -”

“We’ll be the judge of that.” The creature jabbed at Einarr, plainly not intending to hit. “You’re coming with us.”

“What about -”

“You’re coming. With. Us.”

Einarr scowled at the creature, his hands lowering as his anger mounted. “Not without my friends. I’ll not leave them-”

The huldrekall shoved its nose into Einarr’s face. “Oh, rest assured,” it spat. “Your ‘friends’ are being dealt with. We’ll not let even one of the Woodsman’s spies loose in the land where Lady Huld still holds sway.”

Einarr was even more confused now. Lady Huld, as in the goddess? Why would a goddess take interest in anything that happened to the ‘forgotten’? He was not given the opportunity to ask any questions, however, as the spear-wielding spirits began poking and prodding him to follow the very woman who had baited him into their ambush.

***

After a good twenty minutes’ march, the circle that had captured Einarr met up with a similar circle, this one with Runa bound and gagged even as she walked, just as upright and proud as ever. Einarr’s vision turned red around the edges: had there been so much as a scratch on her that hadn’t been there before, he might have let the rage come. As it was, he kept it at bay until their two circles had joined.

Einarr pitched his voice low, sure that their captors would hear him anyway. “You are well?”

The glare she shot him was as sour as a green apple, but she nodded agreement anyway.

“The others?”

Runa shrugged before making noises muffled by her gag.

“You’re telling me to stop asking questions when you can’t answer?”

The noise this time was definitely affirmative.

A mischievous mood tugged at him, in spite – or perhaps because – of their situation. “I don’t know. This seems like a rare chance.”

If the look she’d given him before had been sour, this one was positively poisonous.

“Oh, fine. But I don’t think we’re in any immediate danger here.”

As if to underscore her point, one of their guards jabbed at his leg as though to hurry him along.

“Will someone at least tell me who this Woodsman is supposed to be?” Einarr spoke more loudly this time, the question directed at his captors more than his betrothed.

“We will be asking the questions, spy.” This from the same one who had spoken to him earlier. “Soon enough we will know why you are really here.”

“I can tell you that right now, although if you were really watching us earlier you’d have heard. Our mast was struck by lightning in the storm last night. We need a new one before we can set sail again.”

“Pah! Now we know you are lying. Auna will wrest the truth from you.”

Einarr didn’t bother asking who Auna was: even if their captors had been a little more reasonable, he would find out soon anyway. He could smell wood smoke from up ahead – although why forest spirits would make use of camp fires, he could not begin to guess. Now that they were drawing closer, he could make out round wooden huts, their roofs thatched with evergreen boughs, and a small plume of white smoke from the center of the formation. Around the outside of the hidden village sentries sharpened spear points and made arrowheads even as they kept a wary eye out for their enemies – whoever or whatever they may be.

Their guard did not lead them into the village. Their path veered off to the left, where stood a much larger, much darker hut than what Einarr had seen of the village. That, then, must be where Auna waited.


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6.4 – Silence of a Startled Wood

At least, Einarr thought, the ground in the forest was not sucking mud. It was, however, one of the few hopeful prospects about it, and most of the issue was a result of how ridiculously dense the wood was. Most of the trees they passed were of insufficient girth to serve as a mast.

Here and there the wood would open out into a meadow, where the sun could reach the forest floor and where underbrush had begun to grow up – only to be viciously cut back and trampled over by whatever creatures lived here. It was almost as though rutting stags had been induced to rage and kept there to battle the whole year through. Or perhaps, instead of stags, there were mad bears loose. Einarr struggled to think of what else could have caused the massive gouges marring earth and trees alike. They were far too large to be from battling men – if men even battled on this island. Assuming Runa was right, Einarr doubted many warriors ended up here. Even if she were wrong, however, it would be unusual for an island to war against itself in this age.

He shook his head. So long as they were quick, it wouldn’t matter what it was that did battle in this forest. The tree before him, however, was yet another in the list that may have been serviceable if it hadn’t been so badly damaged. With a sigh, he shook his head. It wasn’t just the physical scars, of course, but the disease that had taken hold from them. “Any luck, Erik?”

“I wonder what would happen if we took a bunch of little ones and bound ‘em together?”

Erik’s idea wouldn’t have been a bad one, he didn’t think – except that none of them had the tools or experience to put it together. Einarr grunted. “Keep looking, then.”

Irding harrumphed, moving on from another skinny tree. “Further we go, the worse everything looks. What in the world is going on in here?”

“Looks like a war’s on.” Jorir stood between trees, looking out into the forest with his arms crossed. “But as to who’s fighting, or why? Couldn’t tell you.”

“Distempered bears?” Einarr ventured. It was half a joke, but no-one laughed. “I want to say it’s none of our business, but if we’re caught out here when the fighting picks back up…”

“Hello?” Needles crunched under Runa’s feet as she took half a step.

Einarr spun on his heel: had she seen someone? He raised an eyebrow, silently asking the question as she turned to look at him. With a shrug she shook her head and returned to peering out into the wood.

This time the movement caught Einarr’s attention, as well – too fast and too brief for him to tell what it was, but something had dashed between trees.

“Who’s there?”

Again no answer but the silence of a startled wood. Cautiously, Einarr turned in a circle where he stood, but saw nothing.

“…I think it’s time we moved on. We’re not likely to find what we need in this section of forest, and we appear to have attracted someone’s attention.”

It was still a risk, of course, but it seemed a better one than hunting down the whatever it was and threatening it. The five of them were in poor shape to be picking fights. Einarr started walking – east, he was relatively sure, but under the canopy it was hard to tell.

Whatever it was that had hidden from them, it did not try to stop their progress. And, indeed, the signs of battle grew less fierce as they walked, even as the underbrush grew dense and slowed their progress. The very air seemed to become dark and heavy. Einarr felt his hackles stand on end, and he felt sure the eyes now on them were unfriendly.

“Runa? What does the lore of the island tell you about this forest?”

“You’re wanting to know what holds this territory, and that I don’t know. Whatever it is, though, I’d rather take my chances with the creatures we spotted earlier.”

“I think you may be right, there.” Something about this overgrown section of an overgrown wood set his teeth on edge in a way that even the svartalfr cave hadn’t.

No-one objected, although Erik gave an uneasy chuckle.

The brush that had seemed thick on their way in seemed even thicker now that they were trying to leave. Thorns that he would swear hadn’t been there before grabbed at their clothes and scratched at their skin with every step, as though the wood itself were trying to keep them there. Einarr, however, had no intention of accepting the hospitality of such a dark presence. Several times he reached for the sword at his belt, but some instinct warned him against chopping at the brambles.

It was almost a relief when the battle-torn section of the wood came back into view and the light increased. Noon was long since passed: even should they find their new mast today, they would be unable to get it back to the Gestrisni before dark. Better to be in the relative open of contested territory where they could fight back than pinned down by brambles if they came under attack.

As they neared the contested section of forest, Einarr caught a definitive look at the thing that had been watching them initially. It wasn’t truly a thing: it appeared to be a woman, fine-boned and curvaceous, with skin the color of tree bark and loam. He saw her, of course, because now she ran as though the demons of Hel herself pursued.

Einarr stole a glance back at his companions: they saw her, too. He raised a hand and tried to rush forward. Tried, because the brambles caught in his trousers and vines stretched across his shins. He very nearly tripped even as he called out to the fleeing girl.


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6.3 -Engimýri

Behind them lay the sandy beach they had just climbed. Ahead of them, on the other side of a good-sized meadow, lay the blackest forest Einarr had ever seen – darker and more imposing by far than the giant wood on Svartlauf. The trees were all of the ordinary size, but packed so densely it would be impossible for sun to reach the forest floor, with needles darker than the darkest fir. In that spot, a strange reluctance seized their feet and all of them paused, staring at the wood ahead of them and the cliffs beyond it.

“Something in there ought to do for a mast, anyway.” Jorir broke the silence that had fallen as they contemplated the steps ahead. “I mislike the look of that wood, though.”

Einarr and Erik both hummed in agreement, and Einarr was reasonably certain their hesitation had nothing to do with the old fisherman they had left to his nets on the beach. Einarr took a deep breath then and stepped forward. “Well, nothing for it.”

As he stepped into the grass, the ground squelched under Einarr’s boot. Well, perhaps not surprising, given the storm the night before. With a sigh, he pressed on, and the others followed. The ground grew wetter with every step, and soon the mud sucked at his boots, trying to pull them from his feet.

Runa had the worst of it: the hem of her skirt soon grew sodden as she slogged through the meadow-marsh, kicking it ahead of her with every step so it would not tangle in her legs. To her credit, she did not complain, although before long Einarr wondered if she simply did not have the breath to speak. Without a word he let the others pass him and dropped to a knee in the mud.

“My lady.”

For just a moment, he thought she would take him to task for foolishness, but evidently she thought better of it. With a breathless nod, she pinned her skirts up to her knees against Einarr’s back and wrapped her arms about his neck. As he rose he staggered a bit before he found his balance again. Now it was doubly hard to keep his boots, and every step came with the spectre of a slip that would spill both of them in the mud.

“My thanks, dear one” she had murmured in his ear as he rose. It would have been worthwhile even if she hadn’t, but the intimate words brought a smile to his face even as he trudged forward to overtake Jorir once more.

Finally, though, the land began to rise a little as they neared the forest’s edge, and dry a little as it did. They began passing the rotted stumps of deadfalls, and sometimes the gray wood itself, and soon they neared the shadow of the wood. Here they stopped again, by a stump that was merely grayed by time and not yet rotted. Runa got down, and the others all took a moment to catch their breath.

“So this is a thoroughly miserable little island,” Erik said eventually.

Irding agreed. “My thoughts exactly. I’m not sure if I hope there’s a village here or not.”

“I expect there is,” Runa mused. “But I suspect if we find it we’ll wish we hadn’t.”

“Because of what the old man said?” Einarr wasn’t sure the old man wasn’t crazy, but as the Oracle had made abundantly clear there were some definite gaps in his education.

“Quite right.”

“Don’t take this amiss, Lady Runa,” Irding said. “But… I always thought the Isle of the Forgotten was just a bedtime story.”

Jorir actually laughed. “Can’t blame that’un on the Cap’n, milady.”

“Everything you’ve seen,” she grumbled, “and I still hear protests of just a story. Just! Have the Singers kept the lore for nothing?”

“Not nothing, surely.” This was going to blow up fast if Einarr didn’t calm her down. “But since not one of us seems to know what we’re in for…?”

“Bah. Fine.” Runa looked a little mollified, at least. “Basically, the Isle of the Forgotten is the opposite of Valhalla, only apparently you don’t have to die to get there.”

Erik scratched his head. “I thought that was Hel…”

Now it was Runa’s turn to laugh. “Hardly. Those who are taken by Hel can still be remembered, even if not well thought of. The Isle of the Forgotten? That’s where nobodies go. Those who waste their lives, with no deeds at all to speak of – or those who run afoul of certain powerful entities.”

Einarr rolled his eyes. “Yes, I understand that this is my fault. Can we drop it and move on with getting out of here?”

“If we can.” Runa met his eyes there, and the look did nothing to soften her words. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no way off the Isle.”

For the second time that morning time seemed to freeze for Einarr as another’s words hung in the air before him. Could he really have brought such a terrible fate on their heads? Not just theirs, but everyone waiting for them, as well?

Jorir cleared his throat and the spell was broken.

“If landing here is a curse, then plainly I must find a way to break it. That is, apparently, what I do.”

“Let us hope so.”

Only at this point did he break eye contact with his betrothed, when the contest of wills had been agreed a draw. “Now then. I think we’ve sat around talking long enough, don’t you?”

Murmurs of agreement spread around the other sailors, and they once again turned to face the forest. Somehow it felt just as black up close as it had from across the marsh. The difference was, from here they could see scars on trees and earth alike, as though some great battle had taken place here, and recently.

“Let’s find what we need and get out of here,” Jorir grumbled. “I’d rather beg the old man for another night’s lodging than stay in there if I don’t have to.”


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6.2 – Stew

The old man led the five castaways up the beach, offering no conversation over the howling storm. The building they stopped at was a fisherman’s shack that, even in the darkness, looked nearly as weathered and beaten as the man they followed. A gust of wind caught the door as their host pulled, yanking the cord from his hands and striking the wall with a solid thump.

Inside, three more lanterns like the one the old man carried hung from hooks on the wall so that the inside of the shack was a blaze of light and warmth. An iron stew pot bubbled over a pit fire, and Einarr’s stomach was not the only one that could be heard rumbling.

“Make yerselves at home, such as it is,” their host grumbled. He tossed his oilcloth cloak over a hook without looking and moved slowly over toward his seat by the fire. Even with the cloak, Einarr noted that the ragged cuffs of his pants still dripped.

“Thank you, again.” Einarr tried to mask his wariness from the man, if not from his companions even as they stepped in out of the weather. Here again was a man who went through the forms of hospitality without any love for them.

The old man hummed as he wrung water from his long, gray beard. “I wonder if ye’ll still be sayin’ that in the morning. No matter. Grab yerselves a bowl and warm up. Most I can do fer ye now.”

Einarr kept one eye on the old man even as he filled one of the wooden bowls indicated. The stew smelled of fresh fish and onions, and in the broth floated chunks of parsnip and cabbage. Einarr thought it might have been good even were they not half-starved and frozen. The five companions fell to with a will.

In the morning, when they awoke, the old man was not in the shack. Einarr looked about himself, blinking, for a good minute to ensure he had his bearings.

“Right. Now we’ve found land, I guess it’s time to find out where we are and fix the boat.”

Jorir snorted. “He told us where we are. It just doesn’t help us.”

Erik shook his head. “The Isle of the Forgotten? What is that even supposed to mean?”

“Don’t scoff. If Stigander paid proper heed to the tales, you’d all know what that meant.” Runa’s voice had a hard edge to it, but Einarr was certain she hated to say it. Rather than let the tensions from the ship boil over onto land, though, he broke in.

“Wherever we are, we can’t get back to the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun until we fix our mast. Let’s focus on that, first.”

***

The old fisherman looked no less weathered and no less gruff for the bright light of midmorning, and Einarr had been becalmed too long to be glad of the deep blue, cloudless sky that greeted them that morning. Their host sat on the beach beneath the shade of a large rock mending a net.

“Good morning!” Einarr raised a hand in greeting as he approached the place where their host worked.

“Is it? I wonder.” The old man did not look up from his work, and Einarr rolled his eyes.

“You have our thanks for last night’s meal and the roof over our heads. If we’re ever going to get home, though, we need to fix our ship. Is there a forest on the island?”

“Oh, aye, there’s a wood. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. You’re here, now. May as well settle in and accept it.”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that.”

“Ye’ll go mad, then.” Those words hung in the air before Einarr while the old fisherman turned back to his task. What felt like an age later, the man spoke again without looking up. “Head straight up the beach. You’ll see the wood. ‘Tis a foul place, though – dangerous, and fit for neither man nor beast.”

Einarr set his jaw and turned to face his friends. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could Runa cut him off.

“No. If we are where he says we are, you need someone who knows the lore.”

“The lady is right, milord,” Jorir rumbled. “I’ve heard of the place, but not much, and not in a long time.”

“Besides.” Runa lowered her voice until it was almost as deep as Reki’s, her mouth curling in a sardonic smile. “Do you really want to leave me alone with a strange old man?”

Einarr rolled his eyes again. For all that their host had offered them no harm, it was true that he couldn’t quite bring himself to trust the man. “Fine. How’s your throat this morning?”

“It’ll do in a pinch, but let’s not count on any great feats of song, shall we?”

Einarr harrumphed, but rather than responding he turned to face up the beach.

“Good luck, I suppose.” The old man still did not look up from his netting. The ground beneath their feet had grown stable before the man’s next words reached them: “You’re going to need it.”

“Good riddance to that guy,” Irding muttered.

Einarr nodded in agreement.“Could he have been any gloomier?”

“Before casting aspersions on a helpful old soul, perhaps consider his circumstances?” For all that Runa had insisted on coming, she was coming to the man’s defense rather sharply. “And ours, I’m afraid.”

“If this is the Isle of the Forgotten, those blasted feathers you grabbed had a high price.”

Wonderful. Jorir had managed to rub Einarr’s face in that – again – while somehow agreeing with Runa. As glad as Einarr was that they seemed to be getting along better since the tower, he could wish they would be less harsh about it.

“Maybe so.” He could not let them fall to fighting now. Not if they ever wanted to get back. “Think we can find a new mast in there?”

Spread before them, on the other side of a meadow of perhaps three acres, was a thick forest of dark evergreens. It was time to get to work.


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So begins book 6! I hope the wait was worth it. We’re not quite all moved in, but we’re close, and Pago Pago thus far is lovely.

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.1 – Landfall

Runa coughed. Again. And again, Irding’s face fell into a scowl. Erik paid his son no mind, merely continued to row. Two weeks had passed since they had escaped the Tower of Ravens, and for two weeks they had been becalmed. Which meant rowing. A lot of rowing meant a lot of singing, ordinarily, to keep their strength up – but Runa’s voice was unused to such long labor.

Einarr’s hands tensed on his fishing line. Fights had sparked from less in the last week. Jorir gave a tug on his own line, and the sound of the sinker pulling through the water defused the moment.

The Gestrisni was low on water, and in two weeks there had been no sign of land where they might find fresh. Which meant that Runa’s voice was in bad condition even when she could sing. This might not have been a problem with a more sea-weathered Singer, who could have taken a turn at oar or rudder or line, but Runa was not accustomed to riding the whale road.

Einarr turned to offer his man at arms a nod of thanks. As he did, though, a darkness on the horizon caught his eye. His brows drew down and he scowled across the water even as the first hint of a breeze tugged at his hair.

“Erik. Storm ahead. Let’s see if we can’t ride the wind.”

“Think this old girl will take it?”

“Think we have another option?”

“No, sir. Let’s go.”

A pair of splashes was followed by the dull rattle of fishhooks on the deck as Einarr and Jorir hurriedly pulled their lines in. Before many minutes had passed, the five had unfurled the sail and turned the Gestrisni about to take advantage of the sudden wind.

This storm blew up nearly as quickly as the one that had brought the Grendel, late the year before. Soon the poor, bedraggled Grestisni was being tossed about on the waves like a young boy’s toy while Runa’s voice cracked over the notes of a song of strength they desperately needed.

And yet, they moved, and for that Einarr was thankful. He had nearly begun to despair of finding land before they all died of thirst, before the storm. Now all they had to do was weather it and find land.

They crested a wave, and the prow of the Gestrisni momentarily pointed straight down, leaving Einarr staring into the deep. He swallowed as the ship righted itself, glad at least that there had been no sign of anything below that might have stared back. He might have done better to heed Erik’s caution – no. That way lay madness. Dangerous or not, riding the wind had been the right call, if only because it got them moving again.

“Brace yourselves!” He just had time to shout before an errant wave crashed over the bow, drenching them all as it washed across the deck. The mast groaned ominously. A string of dwarven curses carried over the wind. Einarr shook his head violently, trying to clear the water from his eyes but only succeeding in whipping about the wet ropes of his beard.

“Everyone okay back there?” He hollered over the wind, never taking his eyes from the sea ahead. Erik and Irding roared wordlessly back. That was four. When Runa’s song picked back up, only a moment later, Einarr nodded to himself. “Steady on, then!”

At the crest of the next wave, Einarr spotted a black shape on the horizon against the darkness of the sky, too rough and angular to be any sort of giant creature, too smooth to be a rock like the one they had just recently left. “Land ho!”

Irding whooped. Einarr allowed himself half of a smile: he couldn’t really disagree with the sentiment. Perhaps their fortune was taking a turn for the better? This was a day for taking chances, and Einarr thought their chances were significantly better on an island than on the water with no provisions.

As the island drew nearer, Einarr could make out the silhouettes of trees near the shore being tossed in the wind. They should have shelter, at least, once they got the Gestrisni ashore. As if in answer to his thoughts, the hull groaned at him. They were near enough now, though, that the pattern of the waves had shifted. Einarr felt the deck swell up under him from behind and gripped the railing as the breaker carried them swiftly towards the unknown shore.

Their feet sank deep in the wet sand of the shore as they hauled the Gestrisni up out of the water, the familiar grind of sand against wood almost inaudible over the crash of waves and the howl of wind. Einarr straightened to have a look around them, now that the fisherman’s boat was out of immediate danger.

A light appeared farther up the shore, a rectangle of fire against the black backdrop of night. It shrank, then, down to a torch-sized ball of flame, and began bobbing closer. The others came up to stand by Einarr, watching as the light walked toward them.

Eventually, the light resolved into an Imperial-style lantern of glass and bronze, dangling from the hand of a weathered old man – old enough, Einarr thought, to make Tyr seem young. The man held the lantern up, peering at them through the rain as they peered at him.

“Storm or no,” the old man cried. “This here is no safe port. Cast off again, if you know what’s good for you.”

“Grandfather,” Einarr answered. “We are two weeks adrift, with no food and little water.”

“And still I say, cast off, before you become cast away.”

Einarr shared a look with the others, who all nodded in agreement. Irding was the first to take a step back toward the Gestrisni, to put his shoulder to her hull and brave the waves again.

A purple flash of lightning split the sky, and the crack of thunder did not drown out the crack of wood as it set mast and sail ablaze.

“Ah.” The old man bobbed his head now, as though in understanding. “Accursed ye be, then. Come, follow me. I’ve warm food to offer, at least, and the roof don’t leak much.”

Under other circumstances, Einarr might have refused such a gloomy old man. At this moment, however, it seemed the best option before them. “My thanks, grandfather. Tell me, what island is this?”

“This?” The man’s laugh was raspy and dry. “This be the Isle of the Forgotten.”


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So begins book 6! I hope the wait was worth it. We’re not quite all moved in, but we’re close, and Pago Pago thus far is lovely.

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.