Tag: art=magic

9.25 – Bloody Threads

For a moment, the six women stood stunned. Of all the things that had gone mysteriously well, this was the strangest. Reki’s neck prickled in alarm: glancing to right and left, Aema and Eydri looked no easier than she felt.

All around stood spools of thread of all colors, vats of dye, and half-finished tapestries. What truly arrested the attention, though, was the room’s centerpiece.

Urdr’s loom was tall and visibly heavy, the wood so heavily carved and gilt that it was difficult to see how age-darkened the timbers were. On it hung one of those half-finished tapestries: Reki could see the masts of three indistinct ships off to the left, while on the right there was a circle of women – although she could not tell what they were doing. She rather thought she knew anyway.

In front of the loom, though, sat the Weavess herself. Her leathery skin practically crinkled over itself, and her hair hung in lank strings as though she could not be bothered with it. Those falcon eyes, though, looked at the six purported guests who had just charged into her workshop not with anger, annoyance, or even fear, but with amusement. “So you’re finally here.”

Bea took a step forward, her mouth set in a stubborn line belied by the unease Reki read in her shoulders.

“Welcome, your Highness,” the old crone purred.

Beatrix stopped in her tracks.

“Oh, yes, I know who you are, Princess Beatrix Maria Gundahar. I would have known even if my spies had learned nothing.” Urdr’s expression retained its malicious amusement.

Undissuaded, Beatrix strode forward, the point of her sword lowered at the crone. “Step aside.”

Urdr actually laughed, a sound like pinecones scraping against stones. “I know why you have come, you and the troop of Singers that idiot Kaldr brought under our roof. You are here, you think, to destroy my Weaving of Inevitable Victory.”

“If you know that much, then -”

“You are wrong. Even could my weaving be broken by such a paltry thing,” the crone’s gaze lingered contemptuously on Bea’s blade, “the fate that brought you here is different.

“You do not understand.” She clucked, as though in annoyance at poor students. Then, her eyes glittered coldly. “But you will. Tell me, croaker, what is the Art of Weaving?”

The Singers bristled slightly a moment, at both insult and apparent lecture. Whatever trap there might be was still hidden from Reki’s eyes. As such, she wanted to keep the Weavess talking, and so she answered. “Weaving is a means of reading, and sometimes binding, the future, is it not?”

“Good! Very good! Just as the songs say and your matrons claim,” Urdr cackled. She dropped her voice, then. “And yet – common, shallow, and wrong.”

“Unlike your Song – a fleeting, ephemeral touch, vanishing in a heartbeat – Weaving is permanence. Do you not know that the Norns Weave? As their weaving, so is all Weaving. It is blood, and flesh, and bone, the very stuff of life. Not merely Fate, but all that makes it up.

“My threads are not merely the bone and sinew and blood of my Art, and not so different from the bone and sinew and blood of those they bind.” Urdr gestured past her loom to a stack of pale thread, undyed, an empty basin, and a spinning wheel. “My shears are as mighty as a thousand swords. How could it not be, when the Norns themselves are the mistresses of my Art?”

Runa shuddered. Reki, carefully schooling her face, saw Eydri bristle and Bea’s eyes desperately seek an opening, even as the crone held her gaze like a snake.

“I’ll tell you a further secret, children. Weaving binds more tightly if it has a… physical connection to those it rules. Hair is an easy way to do this, although not a particularly effective one. Blood is better.

“Do you know now why you are here?” Urdr’s snaggle-toothed smile was a horrifying void as she stood, moving toward an empty dying basin. As though in concession to her age she moved with bone-creaking slowness, but it was the only such concession she seemed to allow. “Blood of a southern princess. Blood of a Jarl. Blood of song from across all the isles. What a masterful Binding you will become. My line will not end merely as thanes of a forgotten island, or even masters of this sea. Oh no. Far greater things await, for which you shall be the foundation.” She whistled sharply, piercingly.

Four guards rushed into the room – two from behind them, and two from another door she had not noticed – heavily armed and plainly ready for them. From the steel bands about their brows to the leather boots on their feet, Reki had seen no-one at Raenshold with better-kept armor, and if their swords showed signs of heavy use it was surely due to age. Not one of Urdr’s bodyguards appeared to be younger than thirty summers, and each of them had the cold glint of a battle-hardened mercenary in their eyes. Already the door was blocked.

The crone smiled gently, yet all the more hideously for that. “Know despair, for my Weaving lies before you, yet forever outside of your grasp. But even still, be joyous, young ones, for you shall soon become the very foundation of the world.

“Seize them.”


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9.24 – Into the Tower

Reki sat up in alarm. “They’re here?”

“So it sounds.”

“All right, ladies. Everybody up! We have a job to do.”

Eydri sat up and dusted off her skirts as though she hadn’t actually been asleep. For how long, Reki couldn’t begin to guess. Runa and Svana both stirred with a groan, as though they were feeling the lack of sleep from the last two nights. They would need a few minutes, she thought, but that was fine. So did the rest of them.

“Chances are good this caught them by surprise, too,” she said. “If we hurry, and we’re lucky, we might be able to beat them to the weaving room, but we’re out of time for skulking. Gather your things, those of you who have them: I very much doubt we’ll be coming back here.”

“At least not before Lord Stigander has reclaimed Breidelstein,” Runa agreed. “And who knows what will happen in the meantime.” The girl slung her pack over her shoulder, alert more quickly than Reki had thought possible. “Let’s go. The sooner we wreck that loom, the sooner we get back where we belong, and the sooner Father gets freed.”

Svana moved only a little more slowly, but she, too, was ready to be gone from this place.

“We all remember how to find the weavings, correct?”

One by one, they nodded. “All right. In that case, let us make haste cautiously.”


Escaping their chambers was easy. Surprisingly, the guards were not at their post, with no sign of their whereabouts.

The streets and alleys of Raenshold were perversely easier to navigate unnoticed now, as warriors girt themselves to repel raiders below and children scrambled – either for a good vantage point or for a place to hide, depending on their age and temperament. Bea rushed straight for the tower at the main gate, the sword on her back all the excuse she needed to shoulder through the crowds as though she were rushing to the defense of the town below.

Reki and the others slipped quietly through her wake, never falling far behind, but always maintaining their composure as Singers. No-one, under these circumstances, was going to question them.

No-one, that is, except the men still standing guard at the entrance to the tower. They took one look at the group of women quick-stepping their direction and moved to stand shoulder to shoulder, blocking the door.

Svana opened her mouth to Sing, but Reki held up a forestalling hand. A lullaby was one thing in the middle of the night. Now? Now, even if it worked they would draw more attention to themselves. “We need to figure out a distr …”

Before Reki could finish, Bea strode forward.

“Stand aside,” Beatrix demanded, and in that moment she was not just the Imperial Princess, she was the commander of a fleet.

It was not good enough. “The Lord has commanded no-one is to come in or out of here until the raiders are repelled.”

To her credit, Bea hardly even blinked. “Oh? And are you going to tell him that’s why the Lady Urdr had no bodyguard? We were sent to ensure her safety.”

“The Lady Urdr’s bodyguard team is still up there,” the other guard snapped. “What sort of idiots do you take us for?”

“That’s last night’s team,” drawled the first guard. “They haven’t been relieved yet.”

“What are you talking about? Of course they haven’t. Shift change isn’t for another hour.”

Reki and Aema exchanged a glance from behind Bea as the two guards began to argue. With a nod, they slipped around to either side and went for the door.

The guards, caught up in their argument, paid them no heed. Amused, Reki did not fail to note that the second guard kept leading his fellow around by the nose. Why that would be, she could only guess, but she was glad of it.

The door closed behind them with a thunk, and Svana slid the bar into place. Now instead of yelling at each other the two guards – both the gullible one and the insolent one – pounded on the door, shouting after the women to let them in. If Reki were to guess, only about half of the protests were sincere.

That shouldn’t have worked. Why did that work? She shook her head. We need to hurry.

Reki set her concerns aside for the moment, to be addressed later. Up the tower they went, to the third floor where they had heard Ulfr and Urdr the night before. They passed no-one as they raced upwards save for thralls, who seemed utterly unconcerned about the commotion outside.

Don’t get cocky, Reki reminded herself. Once we’ve wrecked the weaving, we still have to escape. It hardly bore thinking of, how they might be treated if they were caught and made prisoners in truth. Ulfr had ordered Runa broken for no better reason than information she did not have: under threat of rape Reki, too, would break the taboo, and once she was free there might not be much left of Breidelstein for Lord Stigander to reclaim. Best for all if it did not come to that, and for that reason… “Runa.”

“What?” The girl sounded a little winded, but they did not dare let up.

“Do you remember how your ‘rescuers’ got you to the harbor before?”

“Well enough.”

“You could lead us down it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” They crested the third flight of steps. Ahead, Reki saw the door they had watched last night, only now it stood open. Perversely, sunlight streamed out into the hallway, though it would have made no sense for the Weavess to work in a windowless room. “There it is.”

Bea’s hand rested on the hilt of her sword as she watched the door. Aema passed about the water skin she had managed to keep with her. Reki, too, kept a wary eye on the Weavess’ room as she sipped from the skin, half expecting the Weavess’ actual bodyguards to come boiling out of the room at any moment.

At long last the companions exchanged a nod of readiness. Bea’s sword hissed out of its sheath and she led the surge into the Weavess’ workshop. Inside, amid the baskets of thread, Urdr relaxed on the bench of her loom, a look of amusement on her papery face. Otherwise, they were alone.


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6.14 – Aftermath

Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.

“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.

Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.

Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”

“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”

Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”

“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.

Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”

“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”

“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.

Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”

Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”

Jorir harrumphed.

“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”

“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”

Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”

“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”

***

The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.

Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?

Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.

Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.

When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.

The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.

The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”

Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”

“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.

Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”

“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”

“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”

“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”

Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”

She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”

“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.


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5.2 – Wise Women’s Table

“Please, be seated. There’ll be no leaving until morning at the earliest anyway.” The old matron moved deftly to the side of the door and began shooing their party in, towards the long table with its pot of stew – rabbit, if Einarr’s nose didn’t lie. He allowed himself to be swept into the Hall and to a place at the table.

There were nine of them, and eight empty bowls set along the table. Given that Runa had been sent to stand at the back with the servants, that accounted for all of them. Einarr had never known Singers to be able to divine: perhaps there was something to the rumors about the wood? Einarr shrugged and settled on the rough wooden bench.

“Now. I know why our wayward apprentice has come, although she shall be expected to explain her tardiness.” The crone spoke as she settled herself back into the seat at the head of the table. “I was surprised to hear that the daughter of Fjori was returning to the Hall. Is the sun troubling you again?”

“Not at all, Amma.” Reki was near breathless, as though she actually were a child addressing her grandmother. “During a recent raid, we found a chest filled with instruments. I convinced my Captain that the Conclave might wish to buy them.”

The old crone snorted. “Buy them. Feh. We shall have a look in the morning.”

“Thank you, Amma.” In the worst case scenario, they would be demanded as hospitality gifts. For all that the Vidofnir needed the coin, Einarr would be hard pressed to see that as a loss if the Matrons were able to answer his questions.

One of the other old women at the table – more like a willow in stature than like the oak of her superior’s mein – was staring at them as they settled. Einarr stared a challenge back at the woman’s face, but she appeared not to notice. Once everyone was seated, she waved imperiously towards the back of the room.

A young woman in plain white wool stepped hurriedly forward.

“Add some extra nutmeg to tonight’s mulling, and a good amount of angelica.”

The girl curtsied and hurried out the back of the hall.

Reki’s brows drew down in concern. Evidently that combination meant something to her. “Is something amiss?”

“Yes, child,” said the willowy crone, her voice somewhat less desiccated than her oaken superior. “There is corruption at work among you… on all of you save the apprentice and him.” She pointed at Trabbi.

“Corruption?” Barri stood, shock warring with offense on his face.

“Sit down, Barri.” Einarr could share neither emotion with the man, and even he heard weariness in his voice. “Think. Did any of us feel entirely well after that last battle?”

“The Heir of Raen knows of what I speak?” The willowy crone’s surprise sounded genuine.

“Unfortunately. Of those of us here, the Lady Runa and Trabbi are the only two who did not come into direct contact with the black blood of those monsters. I know I, for one, felt ill following that battle, and it had nothing to do with fatigue.”

Sivid was nodding along. “I, too, felt strangely ill, although I put it down to my own imagination.”

“But tell me,” Einarr sat forward, leaning over his bowl and absently reaching for the stew ladle. “How could you tell?”

All six of the crones at the head of the table burst into laughter at the question, the sound of rustling leaves and water burbling over stone. “We are called the Matrons of Song, are we not?” Asked the oaken leader of the crones.

When Einarr nodded, she continued. “The world sings to us, and in this way we can see your plight… Cursebreaker.”

Einarr wanted to swear. On top of everything else, she could see that?

The willowy crone cackled. “And why wouldn’t we? These herbs I’ve ordered, they will hold the corruption at bay – for a time.”

The headmistress cleared her throat. “Such matters are better discussed in the bright light of day. For now, there is stew and bread aplenty, and berries besides. Eat and be welcome.”

A third Matron, this one plump and warm like the grandmother Einarr remembered, clapped her hands and three of the young women in the back of the hall stepped off to the side and began to play.

It was a quiet, contemplative tune, and before Einarr had finished half his stew he felt the tension of the summer’s journey begin to melt away. By the time they had finished their meal, as they all sat around sipping at the spiced mead, every last one of them was fighting an exhausted sleep.

“Rest, children.” Through half-lidded eyes, Einarr saw the oaken crone standing over them. “Rest now, for on the morrow there is work to be done.”

***

Einarr awoke with a start to the clear light of early morning filtering in through the door of an unfamiliar hall. He patted his chest to find that he had been stripped down to just a tunic and breeches. Horror rising in his gullet, he blinked to clear his vision and cast his eyes around.

There, at the foot of the mat he’d been lain in, the rest of his clothes were folded neatly with Sinmora laid across the top. So why did they put us all to sleep, then?

He snatched up his clean-smelling clothes and began to dress. Somehow there was no longer even a hint of darkening from the blood that had nearly covered him in the battle against the cultists.

…Purification of the corruption. Of course. He exhaled loudly and finished dressing, a smile now tugging at the corners of his mouth. They were not some Jarl’s hall full of warriors, whose only recourse against monsters such as those was bloodshed: they were wise women, and the Conclave of Singers could be counted on to act for the benefit of the Clans. When he snugged Sinmora’s belt about his waist and strode out into the daylight, a jaunty tune popped into his head and he began to whistle.


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4.21 – Red Vengeance

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.

***

Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.


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4.5 – Runes

Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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2.26 – Jorir’s Pledge

Blue sky greeted Einarr’s eyes when they opened, and grass beneath his hands and neck that was soft rather than scratchy. He furrowed his eyebrows, trying to recall how he had wound up on the ground and failing. Already the details of the mushroom-visions had faded from his mind, leaving him with only the feeling of strangeness that comes after a particularly vivid dream.

What good are the mushrooms if you can’t remember what you saw? He sat up, shoulders first, and looked around.

In the morning light, the meadow was a brilliant green, studded here and there with a pop of color from wildflowers. The grass still rustled in the mountain wind, and the sound was punctuated with the occasional trilling of a bird or chirp of a cricket.

Sivid, too, was sitting, although he was no longer blinking the sleep from his eyes. Father and Arring were just beginning to stir, although it seemed odd that last night’s brew would affect them more than him or Sivid. It took Einarr another minute or so to realize that Jorir was not with them.

The sound of humming and the clatter of wood drifted over the meadow from the temple behind him.

Einarr grunted and stood. He slapped at the legs of his pants to clear off the grass that had clung to him overnight and half-turned to look.

Even in the clear light of morning the temple seemed to glow with an inner light. That was definitely where the noise was coming from, and once Einarr turned his attention that way he could also hear the low murmur of conversation. Aha. He straightened and stretched out some of the stiffness that always came of sleeping on the ground.

With a roll of his head and a pop from his neck, Einarr ambled over towards the temple. Jorir stood near the edge of the stone dias, his now-familiar black braids shaking in counterpoint with his head and in time with the clacking sound. Einarr lifted one eyebrow and climbed up to join his swarthy liege-man.

Dominating the center of the temple was a loom that could have come up to a jotün’s knee and as broad as Erik at the shoulders. The glow seemed to come from the warm pine wood of its frame. The Oracle stood in front of the loom, her hands flying from side to side as she worked the shuttles that produced the continual clacking noise.

Her golden hair could not obscure the silver-white dress that clung to her body like a cascade of water. On another woman – perhaps even one of her apprentices – it might have been alluring. On the Oracle it was stunning.

Her weaving slowed as Einarr took in the sight ahead of him.

Jorir cleared his throat. “Milord, you’ll affect her Weaving up here.”

“Oh! My apol-”

“Don’t be so hasty, Smed Världslig.” The Oracle’s voice rang like a bell when she spoke, and both men started. “The Weave of the World has called him up here, and none other. The Cursebreaker will stay, for such is the way he will learn his work.”

“As you wish, my lady.”

She did not answer, though her weaving sped again until the shuttles were moving so fast Einarr nearly couldn’t see them and the sound of knocking wood became a nearly continuous drone. Lord and Warrior stood in silence as she continued her work, and now it was not only the loom and the shuttles which seemed to glow from within but the threads themselves.

The Oracle turned to the side as part of her weaving, just for a moment, and Einarr thought he could see what Jorir’s answer was going to be. The pattern seemed clear, although he could not have said why, and he wasn’t at all certain he liked what he saw.

After a timeless period had passed – Einarr could not have said if it was minutes or hours or even days – the tapestry in front of them was complete and the Oracle stepped to the side.

“Your instincts told you true, Jorir,” she began. “And you have fulfilled what I asked of you on your first visit. The Cursebreaker stands before me.”

“Jorir, surely I must be mistaken, but just to be sure. What was the payment asked of you last time you were here?”

The dwarf cleared his throat. “I was to bring you here.”

“Ah.” Annoyance tugged the corners of his mouth into a frown.

“All is as the world weaves it,” the Oracle intoned. “I required your presence here to complete the weaving I performed for him previously, it is true. But it is also true your father has need of my guidance, and that you have need of guidance and wisdom both.”

She stepped over and stood before him, meeting his eyes with steel-grey ones of her own. “You can see the pattern in the weave before you?”

“I see a pattern, certainly.”

She nodded, as though that were his expected response. Given her trade, it may well have been a foretold one. “Good. The ability to see clearly in such a way is a rare gift, and it will allow you to follow your calling.”

Einarr stared at the newly finished tapestry as her words sank like a stone in his gut. “I was afraid you were going to tell me something like that.”

“Afraid? Why? Those who are tasked as Cursebreakers are seated at the head of the Table of Heroes.”

“Because they are only ever called in times of great peril.”

“Aye. And such is upon us.”


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2.21 – A Tune for All Seasons

Einarr furrowed his brow at Runa’s suggestion, confused. “A… tune? But Song Magic is fundamentally ephemeral.”

“Indeed.” All hint of sensuality was gone from Reki’s voice, and Einarr heard what sounded like a warning threat in her tone.

He bristled: this was his wife she used that tone with, after all.

“Song magic is utterly unsuited for such a task. I don’t know what you’re even thinking about.”

Runa looked back down at the table and took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and looked Einarr directly in the eye. “Yes. Song magic is utterly unsuited to the task I have in mind… at least as it is typically thought of. There is another layer, however. A deeper layer.”

“Such things are not worthy of you, Queen of Breidelsteinn.”

“And yet it is an option I am willing to place on the table, Master Chanter.” She turned her attention back toward Einarr, as though afraid to look away now, and swallowed hard. “Should my lord desire it of me, I am willing to perform a Tuning on the men of the Allthing which will ensure they look favorably on you and your strategy.”

“Such things are forbidden!”

“I know that well, Reki, and yet every Singer learns the practice in her apprenticeship. Such is my devotion, that I will offer the option.”

“Reki…” Einarr had to draw himself together to even ask the question. He had a feeling he was not going to like the answer. “Reki. What is a Tuning?”

“Just as a fiddle or a lyre has strings which must be tuned, so too do the souls of sentient beings. The Tuning works a profound change in the subtlest way, and it is permanent.”

Einarr rocked back on his heels. In that moment he felt as though he was drowning, and had to remind himself to breathe. He looked across the table at Runa: her lower lip trembled.

“Such a thing is possible?” It came out as a whisper, clearly audible over the silence from the rest of the room. Bend the Allthing to my will… and turn thanes to thralls? Never.

Stigander looked shaken to his core: four times married, and four times to Singers.

Runa lowered her head. “It is not permanent. Not truly.”

He almost didn’t hear her, not that her answer did anything to cool his mounting rage. “So when you said you could make me carry you away from your father… this is what you meant?” His voice crescendoed until the last word was nearly a shout. Her eyes went wide but she didn’t deny it. “Have you ever Tuned someone, Runa?”

His wife kept her head lowered and did not answer.

“Have you?”

Still nothing.

“Did you Tune me?” Can I believe her if she says no?

Still no answer.

Einarr growled. He wanted to throw something, but even had something come to hand it would have been a challenge not to throw it at her right then. Red haze danced at the edges of his vision. Soul Tuning. How could such a thing even be possible, if the gods are just?

“There will be no Tuning at the Allthing. None. And if I ever hear talk of you performing this black art, I will put you aside and send you back to your Father’s hall in disgrace.”

He felt sick, and moreso because, for just a moment before the full implications hit, he’d been tempted. The silver bells sounded anyway.

***

Sivid blinked. When he closed his eyes, he was surrounded by the open sky and the side of a mountain above the tree line. Then the sound of bells came to his ears and he sighed. Slowly, the sound of bells faded into the pounding of drums and the jaunty drone of a fiddle and the rattling of dice. When he opened his eyes again, he was in the best sort of public house.

He saw no-one drinking broodily alone or plotting with just their mates. The fiddle and drums were playing for a hallingdanse up near the front of the room, and elsewhere he saw tables full of men telling boastful stories or dicing, and from anywhere in the room he might hear a peal of laughter or a spate of cheering. Even as the grin spread across his face, though, he felt his fingers twitching.

It was a familiar itch, but one he could never quite ignore. The itch to toss the dice and win again, prove to himself that his losses were still only by choice. Let’s find a place in the dance, instead. There would be no unfortunate consequences if he took the prize on the dance floor, after all.

He sidled up to a woman on the outside with a large purse at her belt and a blackboard in hand. “Anything special has to happen for me to join?”

The brown-haired woman spared him half a glance. If she only smiled, she’d be nearly as good-looking as he was. “Entry fee is ten silvers to the pot. Winner gets half, house gets the rest.”

Sivid reached down and tested the weight of his purse. For a wonder, it seemed to be full. “Done.”

He pressed the coins into the bookie’s hand and found himself a place in the circle. The dancers here were fierce for all that their contest was all in fun.

Sivid grinned. The better the competition, the more fun he’d have.


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2.20 – The Third Trial

They finished their lunch in silence. For his part, Einarr kept turning over in his head Jorir’s revelation – the one he plainly did not wish to speak more of. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of his father’s new scrutiny, either. That ‘cursebreaker’ had the ring of a title about it. I’m not entirely certain I like the sound of that.

He found that he had little appetite left. None of the others seemed terribly interested in more food, either: another handful or two of nuts, or a dried fish, and all five of them were on their feet again.

“Well,” Einarr said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the long silence. “Lead the way.”

Jorir nodded and quick-stepped back toward the path. I should have a word with him about that… but not in front of everyone. Maybe if he could learn what the Oracle had actually told his liege-man it would clear matters up.

Einarr didn’t mind the idea of having a calling, per se. But for that calling to be cursebreaking… that was troubling. Urdr was supposed to be the exception among Weavers, after all, not the rule.

The trail entered a series of steep switchbacks up a nearly sheer granite face.

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

Einarr shuddered at the idea of the last vision hitting when a single misstep could send any of them plummeting to their doom. With every step he half expected the sound of bells to ring on the wind, heralding the final test… but with each step all he saw was the trail and the granite face beside him.

The air burned in Einarr’s lungs by the time the trail opened back out into a meadow once more. There were no trees now, and the grasses and shrubs grew low to the ground. He stepped to the side to stand in the grass and catch his breath while Stigander and Arring completed their climb and the sound of bells rang in his ears.

He blinked, and the mountainside was replaced by a large, dimly recognized room. The tapestries hanging on the stone walls were warm and properly abstract, suggesting rather than showing animals and plants, and a large and detailed sea chart was spread out on the table dominating the center of the room.

Standing with him around the table was a white-haired version of his father, Reki, Erik, Jorir… and Runa, also looking older but no less lovely for the matronly cast to her face. I can win her.

“Every last Clan of the north has suffered at the hands of the Order of the Valkyrie. Why will none of the other thanes see that together we have a chance?” Einarr heard the words coming from his own mouth, saw his own fist bang against the table. Oh. So that’s what the situation is.

“Oh, they see it,” Stigander rumbled. “But someone would have to be chosen to lead the navies. They worry more about what that someone might do with command of so many ships and warriors once the threat is eliminated than they do about the Order or the Empire.”

“They’re worried I’ll decide to name myself Althane? Are they crazy?”

“It’s been tried before,” said Jorir. “By rulers older and supposedly wiser than you.”

“Bah. We’ve only just got Breidelsteinn back under control.”

“And not quite that.” Erik crossed his arms. “A couple of the more westerly Jarls are just biding their time, methinks. A lot of trust was lost while we were all out at sea.”

“That was none of our doing, but you all see my point.”

“There’s not many outside our waters who know that, though, son, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily help us. There’s not a lot within the Allthing with quite the experience we’ve had, and they all have their own priorities to consider as well.”

“You’re right, of course, Father.” Einarr looked back down at the map and snorted. “So. I guess that means the first question is how I convince them, first, to trust me and, second, that doing away with the Valkyries is in their best interest.”

“Start with a story, my lord.” Reki’s low voice had not lost its purr in the years since she joined the Vidofnir. Einarr turned his attention to the Singer’s red eyes and waited. “Tell them, over drinks at the hall perhaps, how the Hunters nearly wiped us out while we still wandered. Tell them of the battle that lead you to swear vengeance. That alone might win you a few.”

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

“Have they? The times I’ve overheard you speaking of it, you’ve said nothing of the actual battle.”

“’At’s a good idea, Reki. Why don’t you let me handle that part: I’ve a fair bit of experience spinning yarns over drinks.”

“Thanks, Erik. I never quite know where to begin.”

The big man laughed. “That is because you didn’t do nearly enough stupid shit while we were roaming.”

Einarr and Stigander both shook their heads, each laughing under their breath.

“All right, so that’s a good place to start. What else might help?”

Jorir glared up at him like he was being stupid. “You’ve got an actual plan in place for winning this, don’t ye? Give them some inkling what it is. Ye’ll be relying on independent action in a buncha different places anyway – why not let them know that. Put their minds at ease a bit.”

“Those independent forces are still going to have to coordinate together, but if they’re not fully under the command of the central force… Father? Do you think that would actually make a difference?”

“For some, maybe. Don’t expect it to allay everyone’s suspicions, though.”

“Of course.” Einarr looked across the table: Runa was biting her lip, as though she were weighing something. “Well, my love? Do you have an idea.”

“Um. Well, there is something I could do to help. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though.” Runa glanced over at Reki, and suddenly her expression seemed less weighing and more nervous.

Reki’s attention was turned toward the map, and she didn’t seem to catch the look.

“There could be a Tune that might convince them.” Runa emphasized the word tune strangely. Reki’s head snapped up: daggers of ice seemed to shoot across the table at the other Singer.


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2.19 – A Moment of Respite

The deck of the dromon and the rolling waves and the salt sea air faded gradually from Einarr’s consciousness to be replaced by the sound of wind through the trees and the rustling of grass in the mountain meadows surrounding them. He looked about to get his bearings: he was several paces farther forward than he had been before the vision, but still on the path. If he judged right, Jorir and Sivid’s hard looks meant they were fighting off the vestiges of anger, and he did not think he’d ever seen Arring look sad before.

He nearly did a double-take when he saw his father, however, leaning against a nearby tree looking, of all things, wistful. Stigander had none of the post-vision fogginess about his gaze, though: perhaps he had woken first?

Einarr opened his mouth to ask, but shut it again. Jorir had said the Oracle disliked it when petitioners spoke of their trials, and he was disinclined to get on the Oracle’s bad side before they even arrived.

Sivid blinked awake, followed by the other two, and Einarr suddenly realized that beneath the unease lingering from the visions, hunger gnawed at his belly. He glanced up: the sun had passed its zenith some time ago, although it had still been morning when the second trial began.

Sivid snorted. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ravenous. You’ve been here before, dwarf, do we have time to stop and eat?”

Jorir’s eyes narrowed at the mousey man. “We can stop and sup and still make it by sundown, human, if the final trial is a short one. If the final trials run long, we might still be climbing under the moon.”

Einarr shook his head, looking down to hide his amused half-smile from Jorir. “Careful about teasing my liege-man, Sivid. He hasn’t spent the last fifteen years watching your eternal jests.”

Sivid laughed. “Sorry, sorry. No harm meant.”

Jorir harrumphed, but before he could say more Stigander cleared his throat.

“I think it’s worth the risk to break for lunch. I think I see a decent spot just over that way.” Their captain pointed off to the side of the trail, where several flat rocks were just visible above the grass.

Einarr knit his brows. “It almost looks like someone arranged that.”

“Someone may well have.” Jorir grumbled, but Einarr did not think he had taken too much offense at Sivid’s rudeness. The dwarf resettled his pack on his shoulders and took a step toward the spot Stigander had mentioned, followed shortly by the rest of the group.

The rocks did not quite form a perfect ring, and there were more rocks than people by a few, but though the rocks were half-buried it still looked as though the stones had been placed deliberately. Well, the Oracle here is supposedly an elf. Aren’t they effectively immortal?

Einarr slung his pack down next to one of the rocks and reached into one of the pockets for a handful of pine nuts and filberts. “So what can you tell us about the Weaver’s Palace?”

“Unless it’s been rebuilt recently, it’s more like a small temple than any sort of a palace. The Oracle lived in a hermitage off a little ways from the rotunda where she met petitioners – I could just see it between the pillars. Her loom, though…” Jorir shook his head and did not continue.

Arring sat forward. “Her loom?”

“Like nothing I’ve seen before or since. You’ll have to see it to understand.”

“So what did you ask, the last time you were here?” The question had been burning at the back of Einarr’s mind for a while now.

“Ah.” Jorir glanced warily at Stigander, then sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to tell ye eventually. Yer da’s not the only one with a curse to break, y’see.”

Now Einarr sat forward, his eyebrows raised. The hand that was seeking a dried fish stopped.

“My smithing… technically, it’s some of the best… but it will never produce magic, so long as I am bound by that witch’s curse.”

Einarr winced, even as Stigander nodded in understanding. A Singer’s magic was ephemeral. Should it fail, there would be no memorial of the failure. For a smith, though… And worse for a dvergr, whose metalworking was their pride.

Jorir wasn’t quite done. He rolled the tafl king between his hands in silence for a pair of breaths. “And now you’ll be wanting to know the answer she gave me. She told me the Cursebreaker would be the one who gifted me the means of my own defeat.”

Einarr stared as Jorir held the king between thumb and forefinger, lifted for all to see.

“You defeated me at tafl, with a king gifted by the one who will be your queen. That you then gifted it to me in return for my oath binds me to both of you. I still do not understand the impulse that prompted me to swear to you. Perhaps the Oracle’s weaving binds fate just as much as any other Weaver’s does. But you are the Cursebreaker, and I would not be surprised if that is part of the answer your lord Father receives as well.”

Father was staring, too, but not at the dwarf. His eyes were glued firmly on his son’s shocked face. Einarr felt the weight of the stare, but his mind was still processing the implications of what Jorir had said.

“We stopped to eat, though. We should eat and go, or we’ll not make it before nightfall.”


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