Tag: art=magic

10.41 – Logic Puzzle

Troa bristled, as Einarr knew he would. “Now look here —”

“The longer this takes, the farther ahead she gets. You’re a scout, I’m not. So prove you’re as good a scout as Sivid is a thief and open a door.”

Troa clamped his jaw shut, grinding his teeth, and thrust the charcoal at Einarr.

The rune was already starting to give Einarr a headache: he set about marking the doors as quickly as he could. Then he finally allowed himself to shift his focus away from all the details he would ordinarily pass over. One more thing to do. “Hand me your knife.”

“What in blazes do you want that for?”

“You want light or not?” He’d gotten a little better at controlling how bright the sun rune was since last fall.

“Ah.” Rather than draw his knife, Troa thrust out his off-hand. “Draw it there, instead. Easier to see by.”

With a shrug, Einarr traced the ᛊ on the sleeve of his tunic. He knew it was possible to inscribe runes on a body, but that was not a line of questioning Elder Melja had encouraged.

When the sleeve began to shine Troa lowered his arm and stood looking down the hall for a long moment. “There are three doors,” he said finally. “Two on the inside, one on the outside. Construction would be easier on the outside wall…”

“But that seems too obvious. I agree.”

“So then, which of the two inside doors do we want to try?”

Einarr frowned. They hadn’t been able to find the path back to the prison room, so there was no way of knowing which was nearer to it. Still… “The Weavess is old. Probably she would want to shorten her path as much as she could. But which one is that?”

Troa shook his head. “You’re making this too complicated, and I may be an idiot. Whichever door she used should show signs of disturbance. Take the outer door. I’ll start here. Footprints are unlikely, but there might be bits of thread or scrapes on the floor or the wall around the edges of the door.”

The search took longer than either of them was happy with, and Troa’s efforts to open the door longer still, but finally they managed to pry open what they judged to be the most likely of the three doors. In the end, they stood before the yawning gulf of another passage, and once again Einarr’s neck prickled. Only this time, it didn’t feel like magic.

“If its all the same to you, Troa, I think I’m going to leave that light on your arm.”

Troa looked nearly as spooked as Einarr felt as he nodded. Silently they stepped into the new passage, searching as they moved for the cause of their nervousness.

Eventually, Troa came to a sudden halt, holding out an arm to forestall Einarr. His eyes were glued to the floor at his feet. Or, rather, the lack of floor.


After being thrown bodily across a pit filled with spikes dripping poison, Runa walked for quite a ways before she and Jorir ran into Urdr’s next trap. (She really was going to have to think up a suitable vengeance for that. Some other time, though.)

Before them, the passage was barred by an elaborate puzzle lock. That’s plainly what it was, and yet when Runa had tried to manipulate the clues, they refused to budge. It wasn’t that they were stuck – no. They were large and solid pewter, possibly with stone cores. In its center, a roll of birch bark stuck out from between two of the plates. Runa puffed air up as if to blow away hair from her forehead as she unrolled the note.

Part of her had hoped for a clue, but no. The old hag just wanted to gloat. Runa shook her head and tossed the bark away. There were runes on the plates, that much was clear… but the puzzle didn’t seem to fit together. “And me stuck with the one blacksmith on the sea who can’t read the runes.”

“Not by choice, Lady. Can you think of any smith who would shut himself off from the Art of his craft like that?”

She shook her head. She hadn’t actually meant to say that aloud. “My apologies, sir dwarf. I am merely irritated, and we cannot collaborate.”

Jorir frowned, looking at the puzzle pieces he could not read. To him, they must look like nothing more than smooth pewter disks. “Weavers most often work in images, though,” he mused. “What if the runes are merely there to obscure the plain image?”

Runa smacked a fist into her palm. “Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You’re a Singer. How many times have you actually consulted a Weaver?”

She hummed, her mind already manipulating the runes into possible combinations of less symbolic images. Eventually, she nodded to herself. “Alright, Jorir. I think I have a solution. It’s a little fuzzy towards the end, though, and I can’t move the pieces myself.”

He grunted. “Fine. But tell me, what happens if your ‘fuzzy at the end’ is wrong?”

With a sigh, she shrugged. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t worried. The Weavess only needed to slow them down, but Runa would be shocked if the old witch didn’t want them all dead anyway. “Probably nothing good. Do we have any way of finding out without trying it, though?”

Jorir studied the lock another long moment before shaking his head. “All right. Fine. Let’s get this over with. Hopefully my shade won’t have to explain to Einarr why you were buried under a rockslide.”

Runa rolled her eyes. She didn’t think he saw. “So cheerful. Come on, we’re wasting time. I do not intend to let that woman get away. Start near the bottom, second from the right corner. You’ll feel diamond-shaped ridges in the middle.”

She could hear Jorir grumbling even as he reached for the indicated plate. Now she just had to hope the image in her head matched the one that had been in Urdr’s.


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10.40 – Doors

Runa’s scream cut off as the ledge on the opposite side slammed into her stomach. Her chest and her arms folded over the top, and she had pulled herself up to be firmly on solid ground before Jorir had crossed the distance.

“Roll!” He shouted.

“Huh?” She rolled from her front to her back even as she spoke.

Jorir’s boots thudded loudly into the ground a moment later, exactly where she had been laying. “Nice reactions.”

She took a deep breath and let out a cough. “Somehow, I don’t think Einarr would approve of that method.”

“Perhaps not,” he agreed.

“You will regret that, you realize.” She was still catching her breath. He couldn’t allow her too much more time for that, though.

“Perhaps. But it was the fastest, most assured way of getting us both across – as long as you didn’t see it coming.”

She harrumphed – an amusing sound on any woman, but most especially on one so young – and rose, dusting herself off. “You haven’t heard the end of this. Let’s move on.”


Einarr and Troa had made it past the knives that stuck out randomly from walls and floor and were probably poisoned – they thought. Then the passageway opened out into a small room. In the center of the room was an uncomfortable-looking stone chair with manacles built into the arms. Einarr raised an eyebrow at Troa, who shrugged. They started across, and when they had nearly reached the seat the door behind them slammed shut.

Startled, Einarr turned to look behind. Where there had been a door, now there was another of those blasted steel shutters. He shook his head: they weren’t coming back this way, anyway. There did not appear to be anything else in the room, and then writing on the back of the seat caught his attention.

“Cursebreaker, Glutton, and Thief,” Einarr read. “Fate decrees that only two may continue. The one who remains will find that they envy Loki’s fate.”

A strange clicking sound echoed through the room, like clockwork, followed by a faint scraping of stone on stone. Einarr looked up, and then had to duck back quickly to avoid the drop of liquid that fell from the new opening in the ceiling. Whatever it was, the smell was putrid. Likely it was related to the smell on those knives that popped up seemingly at random in the hall.

“There are weapons on the wall.” Troa mused. “As though she expected a bloody fight in this room.”

“There are limits to her Sight after all, I think,” Einarr answered. “There’s nothing we need to do in here.”

Troa hummed and followed Einarr toward the door. “You’re plainly the Cursebreaker. We all know that by now. I can own that I’m probably the Thief. But who in the name of all the gods would the Glutton be?”

Einarr just shrugged as he hurried on.

A few moments later, Troa spoke again. “Even if there had been three of us, I don’t think that fight would have gone like she expected.”

Einarr chortled. “Likely not, no. We may have come to blows over who was to stay behind, but because we all had good reasons it should be ourselves.”

Troa gave an answering chuckle and then the two fell silent again.

Some time later, Einarr broke the silence. “Is it just me, or has this been too easy?”

“How so?”

“The Weavess has had well nigh twenty years to plan her escape. So why haven’t we run into anything more deadly than dripping poison?”

Troa stopped ahead of Einarr and turned to face him. “You think we’re missing something.”

“I do.”

Troa pursed his lips, thinking, and all the while he examined the space around them. “…I think there’s a curve in this wall.”

“It’s felt too long to you, too, then?”

“Far. I think she has us going around in circles.”

“But if there was an open passageway, we’d have seen it. Just a moment.” Einarr opened his belt pouch and dug around inside. Before too long, his fingers closed on exactly what he was after: the runestone he had carved last fall, engraved with ᚨ. Along with Wisdom came Sight, after all, and he desperately needed to see right now. He closed his eyes and willed the runestone to life.

When he opened his eyes again, it was as though the tunnel was lit with the full light of the sun. The fading glow from Sinmora almost hurt his eyes, but if Troa was going to be of any use at all he needed to be able to see, too. Even with the apparent increase of light, though, he could see details on the walls he never would have without the rune. He blinked several times, trying to get used to the sensation. “Well. That’s… bizarre. And distracting. Don’t count on me to do much other than notice things for a little, Troa.”

“Never fear, milord. I’ll have your back, same as always.”

Einarr was sure he would: he shrugged, a little uncomfortably, but Einarr was going to have to get used to that sooner or later. He turned about where he stood, searching for a join that might indicate a secret door in the rough stone walls.

“Not here. Let’s keep going.”

Troa marked the wall with a piece of charcoal he kept on hand and on they jogged, Troa keeping his eyes open for immediate threats while Einarr scanned their surroundings for any sort of a clue. By the time they returned to the mark on the wall, Einarr had spotted three likely locations, and no way to return to the room with the chair.

The other thing he had not been able to see was any way to open the doors from inside the hallway. “There must be a mechanism somewhere,” he mused. “Even if the trigger for the doors to open was meant to be someone sitting in the chair, something would have to operate out here, as well.”

“And now is when I wish you had Arring around instead of me. He could make short work of this stone, I’m sure.”

“But Arring would never have spotted those blades in the hall,” Einarr answered without even thinking. “I will mark the three doors and then give you some light.”

“What do you expect me to do?”

“Open them. One of them, anyway. Find the catch. I plainly don’t know what to look for.” He looked straight at the scout, weighing his options. Then he decided to take a chance. “Sivid could do it. Prove to me you can.”


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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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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by!

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. I just reworked my reward tiers, so I hope you’ll give it another look.

 

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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