Tag: Auna

6.17 -Heavy Fire

For the first time since they’d landed here in the middle of that terrible storm, Einarr could see the night sky. He had thought, of course, that by seeing the stars they would be able to guess where in the sea they had been taken. It was not to be.

In other circumstances, he would have loved being able to show this sky to Runa. The moon was a brilliant silver orb, and all around it shone more stars than any man could hope to count, so brightly that the sky itself seemed a shimmery blue rather than black. But the sight that was so beautifully vibrant above also proved that they were in no place Einarr could even guess at. He could not see a single constellation that might help point their way home.

He shared his watch with Jorir, but while the dwarf knew herb-craft better than Einarr expected any man of the clans to he had made plain he was no navigator. The stars were beyond his ken. Still, however, for the best that Runa watched with Erik. He was the best fighter of the four of them, but also the most reckless. Einarr heaved a sigh: that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“What’s on yer mind?” Jorir asked from his perch at the top of the rise.

“Where are we?”

“The Isle of the Forgotten, we’ve been told. I think the Lady might be better equipped to tell you that than I.” Jorir did him the courtesy of not feigning ignorance of the question, at least.

“You’ve never seen a sky like this before either, then.”

“Never. Although…” As his voice trailed off, Einarr heard the sound of a body sliding down a grassy slope, and then the dwarf’s footsteps approached. “If we’re tryin’ ta avoid the attention of a troll, now might not be the moment to talk about this.”

Einarr nodded. “You’re right, of course. My turn on the rise?”

“If you would.”

Off in the distance, further along the trail they had been following, there was a great crash of stone cracking against stone. Einarr cracked a wry smile, knowing nobody else would see it. “It seems I was right.”

“Quite. It also seems as though your troll is hunting elsewhere.”

“For now. Perhaps.” With a nod to himself, Einarr bent over and half-crawled up the slope of the hill. At the top, he stretched out on his stomach to make a less obvious target for anyone who happened to be looking. Or throwing.

Another crash, this one from the way they had come. What was it doing? Einarr knit his brow: the only answers that occurred to him were ones he definitely did not like – ones that suggested this troll was far more clever than ordinary. He would move them if he thought they were in danger of being hit by a flying rock, or if it seemed like the creature was otherwise close to finding them, but he’d meant what he told Runa. If it came down to it, the four of them could probably defeat the troll, or at least drive it off. But there would be a price, and probably a heavy one, and he needed them all in good health to get out of here.

Over the course of the rest of his watch, Einarr listened as the stones narrowed gradually in on their location. While they came nearer, he still didn’t think the troll knew where they were. He sat up to begin scooting down the slope.

A blast of earth and rocks pelted him from behind, throwing him forward into a tumble down the hill. A curse escaped his lips as he somersaulted down the slope: “Shit!”

Erik and Runa were already up by the time he regained his feet, and Jorir was tossing his pack over a shoulder. It hardly seemed necessary, but Einarr gave his order anyway. “Run!”

No-one tried to argue. Erik threw his baldric over a shoulder and took off. Runa and Jorir were right behind. Was this proof that the troll knew where they were, and would soon be on top of them? No, and it was also possible that by running they had given themselves away, much like a grouse in the woods. It was also possible, probable even, that the next stone would have landed in the middle of their camp.

The rocky trail shone silver in the starlight. They raced for it, stones exploding from the ground around them as they went. Einarr took the lead. They would be more visible on the path. He turned alongside it, hoping the others would follow suit.

The ground beneath his feet was rough and stone-pocked, and would have been even without the troll’s attentions. Einarr was forced to slow after the third time his ankle turned under him and threatened to send him crashing to the ground.

The trail was leading them closer to the ridge. Einarr paled but did not slow as he realized the trap they were in – how the troll hunted. They could not leave the path, as they had no other way to find the village. But the path was no safe haven, not here. Auna had warned them, but he had not understood. He set his jaw and ran faster.

Ahead of him, the ground shook, although it was not the sound of stone on stone that assaulted Einarr’s ears this time. He raised his head and pulled up out of his headlong run to stop. They could run no farther, for there, on the trail ahead of them, stood a man the size of a bear that made the huldrekall look handsome. Its skin appeared dark grey in the starlight, and its broad, drooping nose obscured the rotted mouth from which fetid breath blew. Long shanks of lank black hair hung from its head and blended with the black skin it had draped itself with.

The troll had found them.


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6.15 – The Test

The five spent a second night in the windowless meeting hall, although while the door was still guarded this time they were not alone. The hulder had moved their wounded to biers lain about the hall. Some of the huldrakall were up and about, looking as restless as Einarr felt. Wanting, he expected, to be out defending their village again that night, but not healthy enough to be of use.

Irding sat against the wooden wall, one of a handful with broken bones who could do little other than laugh ruefully and accept their position. Jorir had been conscripted to help tend to the wounded. Runa, sitting on a large rock in the center of the hall, sang a peaceful melody. Einarr didn’t think there was any magic in it, but it served its purpose of soothing nerves. Mostly.

Einarr and Erik tried not to join the most restless of the warriors in their pacing. A niggling little voice in the back of Einarr’s mind suggested that, if it had failed, it would be his fault. They had been told, after all, not to fight the Woodsman, and he had gone and bashed its head in. If that had actually been a head, of course. So, instead of pacing, Einarr allowed himself to chew his lower lip.

After a time, the sound of fighting drifted through the walls. It sounded… less fierce, somehow, than the other night, although from their windowless cage it was impossible to tell how the battle actually went. Now he did pace, a growl emanating from low in his throat. Were those cries animal puppets of the Woodsman, or were they hulder? He could not tell.

As gradually as it arose, the sound of fighting faded away. Einarr froze in his tracks. The battle was over he was sure, but to what result? He stared at the door, as though he could see the result of the spell in the grain of the wood.

A hand reached out to touch his arm and he started.

“Come and sit down, love,” Runa murmured softly. “Rest. We will learn in the morning.”

“Who can rest?” Despite his words, he allowed himself to be led over towards the center of the hall.

“The exhausted and the wounded. Sit, and I will sing again.”

“Your voice?”

“Just fine, thank you. Their herb-witches have brewed something restorative in the water.”

Einarr settled himself on the ground beside her, knowing she was right but intending to maintain vigilance through the night anyway. He could sleep once he knew he hadn’t accidentally destroyed the hulder. Runa’s song held no more than the common magic tonight, after all – that known to soothe the nerves of man and beast alike.

***

When Einarr awoke, the door stood open and daylight poured in. Runa smiled down at him, looking as though she had not moved since she lulled him to sleep. That, surely, was nonsense, though: she could not have failed to take her own advice, could she?

“Did we win?” That was not quite what he’d intended to ask, but close enough.

“You can ask Elder Auna yourself. She’s waiting on us.”

Einarr scrambled hastily to his feet. “And you didn’t wake me?”

“Of course she didn’t. You deserved your rest. Huld knows you’ve got your work cut out for you, from what your dwarf says.”

“I see.” Einarr offered the elder huldra a respectful bow, then hesitated. “The fisherman we met on the shore called this place accursed, the Isle of the Forgotten. Is that true?”

“I’m afraid so. This village used to care for a forest on Kem. The humans began to pay us less and less mind, and fewer and fewer sought our blessings. Then, one day, we realized we had not seen a man in over a year, and the forest had changed around us. We were no longer on Kem, but here.”

Runa gave a small shudder. “It’s terrible, when you think about it. I’m given to understand that the Woodsman is even older than Auna.”

“More primal, rather. But that is hardly important. You came in search of a mast, and we will gladly allow you to cut a suitable tree.”

“We did it, then? The leshy is contained?”

“I… believe so. Certainly its puppets seemed aimless last night. This has happened before, of course, when the leshy has taken significant damage and had to reform, but even if that were the case you say you were still fighting when the spell took effect. I judge you to have kept your end of the bargain, and therefore I shall keep mine.”

“You have our thanks. Tell me, are there more people here on the island? Thus far we’ve met you and the fisherman who took us in out of the storm…”

“There is a human town on the far side of the forest, although I cannot promise you will like the inhabitants. If you wish to go there, you must pass by the foothills, and that is a treacherous path.”

“I understand. Thank you, Elder Auna.”

She swayed, like a tree in the wind, in answer. “Good fortune to you. Remember that you have made yourselves a friend to us, and do not hesitate to call on that friendship should you require it.”

“We will.”

Auna turned then and left the meeting hall. When she had vanished from sight, Einarr turned on his heel and walked stiffly over towards where Irding lay recuperating, beckoning the others to follow.

He crouched beside Irding, who once again lay back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded as though he had been drugged. Likely he had been.

“All right. We’ve secured ourselves a mast, or at least the ability to make one. Hopefully any other lumber we need to fix the boat, as well. That still leaves food and water, and charts if there are any to be had here. Auna says there’s an actual town on the island: that’s probably our best chance to resupply before we try to escape. And we still don’t know how one escapes this place. I say we chance it.”

“Count me in,” Irding mumbled. Whatever they had given him, it was much stronger than willow bark.

“Sorry, Irding. I’m not taking you deeper into this forest until your ribs are recovered.”

Irding managed to look offended by that even through the haze of the hulder medicine, but all that escaped his lips was a sound akin to a squawk before Erik backed Einarr up.

“He’s right. You need time to mend before we go back to rowing for our lives. Rest up: we’ll handle this.”

Irding grumbled, but there was nothing he could have said just then to convince them to take a wounded man along. “On one condition,” he finally conceded. “You have to tell me anything interesting that happens. Anything.”


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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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6.13 – The Woodsman

The horned wolf stalked a few paces to Einarr’s left and lowered its head, staring down its opponent. It growled and tossed its head as it turned and stalked several steps in the opposite direction. It could not circle its opponent as it wished. When it snarled again, Einarr brought Sinmora up, poised for an overhead strike.

The possessed wolf bounded in for another attack, but as it did it seemed to grow, and its silver fur grew shaggy, green, and mossy. Soon it stood on two feet, no longer a wolf at all. Surprised, Einarr staggered back a step as Einarr and Jorir came to flank him. Runa’s rhythmic chanting had not faltered.

Einarr saw no more wolves: even the one that had watched him hungrily after falling back with its tail between its legs was gone. Now it was just the four of them and a creature that could only be the Woodsman.

A giant, Einarr might have called it even a year ago, although closer in height to the fimbulvulf than to Fraener. The suggestion more than the fact of a pair of legs, and arms like great sweeping tree branches. And, sitting atop the over-broad “shoulders,” the wooden skull of a stag.

The Woodsman gave a roar like the crashing of wood as it closed the distance between itself and the interlopers, even as Runa’s chant built into a crescendo.

The leshy swung at the three men with one club-like arm, turning its whole body with the blow. Einarr hurled himself forward into a roll and felt the wind of the branch’s passing far more closely than was comfortable.

They couldn’t move out of the creature’s path, however, not until Runa finished with her part. Einarr came out of his roll in front of one tree-like leg and hacked at it with Sinmora. The blade embedded itself in the wood, but did little other than knocking free some bark.

The thudding of axes signalled Erik and Jorir’s attempts to slow the unfamiliar monster, to similar effect.

“You almost done?” Einarr called behind him, yanking free his blade. Not that Runa could answer him. He looked up: with a little luck…

The “leg” he stood before was gliding towards him. Now or never. Einarr took half a step back and ran forward, scrabbling up the trunk in hopes of grabbing hold of a branch.

He was in luck. Just as he lost the last of his momentum, Einarr was able to throw his sword arm over a branch jutting out from the creature’s arm as it swung past. Now he was sailing through the air, hanging on by an elbow to what was effectively a tree trying to kill him.

His life had taken a definite turn for the strange somewhere along the line.

At the top of the swing, Einarr managed to loop a leg over the branch he had grabbed hold of and pull himself up.

Moments later, a pulse of energy spread out through the clearing. The Woodsman stopped moving, just for a moment.

That moment was long enough. In that space where the leshy was frozen, Erik and Jorir both buried their axes in its trunk. Arrows flew from Irding’s tree, although it was uncertain what an arrow could do to such a thing. Einarr began to run up the limb he had pulled himself onto.

“It’s done!” Runa’s voice seemed to echo through the clearing. “Let’s get out of here!”

They were not supposed to try to fight the Woodsman. Auna had said they thought it was unkillable, and Einarr could already see why. But as his feet carried him closer to the stag’s head on top of the furious trunk, he could see no way out but forward. A yell escaped his throat as he charged the creature’s head, Sinmora raised high for the strike.

Several things happened at once as he reached the wooden skull. First, Sinmora cleaved into it and it shattered like a rotten log. Second, a vine lashed across his back and caught around his leg. A skull-shattering cry echoed among the trees. And the five companions were hurled bodily from the clearing.

The moon had long since set, and the world was beginning to lighten again, by the time the five reunited around Runa, who was once again tending to a wounded, groaning Irding. Had it not been for the sound, they might have searched for each other a good deal longer.

Erik kindled a small fire from dead tinder near their impromptu campsite, and Jorir promptly set some stones over it for heating water. When Einarr arrived, he was grinding herbs for a poultice for their injured companion.

“So,” he said, his voice low to avoid carrying. “How do we know if we succeeded?”

“We get back and Auna’s people are still there, I think,” Runa answered. Her song magic had done what it could for now. They would have to wait for Irding to regain consciousness on his own, and for Jorir’s poultice to do its job.

Erik grunted. “Tough going, with an injured man.”

“Not like we know if there’s any other help nearby.” Jorir was laying strips of bandage over the poultice herbs now.

“No. And as much as I hate to chance it, we should all try to get some sleep before we go wandering about in the forest again. Be a really stupid reason to get lost, trying to find our way back exhausted.”

“I’ll keep watch,” the dwarf volunteered. “The Woodsman probably still has spies about, an’ I doubt I’ll be sleeping anyway.”

“My thanks,” Einarr nodded at his liege man. He leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree and shifted his shoulders until he found an almost-comfortable position.

Erik lay back on the ground where he sat, staring up at the canopy. He sounded uneasy when he spoke, but the reasons were all too many and too obvious. “Good night, then.”


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6.12 – Wolves

The exposed slate of the cave walls shone white in the moonlight, a gaping maw of blackness beneath daring them to enter the Woodsman’s lair. Einarr whistled through his teeth – one long, one short, one long again. Rustling in the underbrush signaled his companions’ arrival, and so Einarr pointed ahead at what Runa had found. “Perhaps we haven’t entirely lost fortune’s favor?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Jorir grumbled. “How do we know he’s not at home?”

Runa kept her voice to a whisper when she snapped back. “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that even if we’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon.”

“Think you’re up for climbing a tree, Irding?” Einarr was thinking aloud more than anything. “We’ll need a lookout anyway.”

“Think I’ll manage somehow. I don’t suppose I could get another pinch of willow bark to chew?”

With a harrumph, Jorir tossed him a small pouch. “Don’t use any more than you have to. That’s all I have.”

Irding hummed even as he helped himself to a pinch of the pain-killer. “Right. Up I go.”

The forest around them began to stir as Irding, injured and in pain, rather loudly scaled a nearby oak. There was no time to waste. “Runa. Let’s go.”

Runa was moving before he finished speaking, slipping out into the clearing as silently as she had moved the night they had attempted to elope. Einarr thought it best not to question why she was so skillful at sneaking. Knowing what he already did of her as a child suggested an answer, anyway. He followed close behind, and Erik just a pace behind him.

No sooner had they crossed the threshold from shadow to moonlight than the forest behind them came violently to life once more. Irding wrapped arms and legs about the trunk as the tree began to shake, although it did not seem able to do more than that. Grimacing, Irding shimmied up to hug the tree at a good height to see around.

On the ground, Runa had in hand the small chisel and hammer that Auna had provided her. She knelt beside the bare slate at the entrance to the cave and began to chant under her breath even before she brought the tools to bear. Einarr, Jorir, and Erik took up positions around her, weapons drawn.

No sooner had the chisel clinked against the stone than the first wave hit. The grass grabbed at their boots, even as flocks of birds dived at them. That they were pecking at Einarr’s head and not clawing with talons told him they not owls, but that was cold comfort here. He used Sinmora not as a sword but as a swatter, waving it about to keep the creatures off his head. The birds did, slowly, die at their feet, but none of them kept a kill count.

Runa’s voice grew to be audible over the din of screeching birds, and the steady beat of the chisel kept time.

Einarr slashed through a cloud of the Woodsman’s possessed minions, knocking one from the air and guarding his head from the rest. In the momentary gap caused by Sinmora’s passing, he saw silver-furred wolves stalking out of the wood from all directions.

The wolf directly in front of him had antlers. It snarled, showing larger than average teeth.

Einarr stilled, his attention fully on the new threat. The birds flew off as though dismissed.

The wolves prowled forward. Except for the one, they all appeared to be normal. Einarr met the glare of the antlered wolf from under his lowered brow and raised Sinmora. He would claim this challenge.

The wolf snarled again and lunged forward. In a heartbeat the antlered wolf closed the distance, and Einarr frantically swung Sinmora down to turn its bite. No natural wolf could be so quick: a gift of the leshy, perhaps?

Einarr could spare no more time on consideration. The antlered wolf snapped at his legs again and again, with odd twists of the head as he dashed back out to strike again. Trying to trip Einarr with the horns. Sinmora cut its hide, but shallowly.

Runa still chanted over the nearly inaudible beat of her hammer and chisel.

One of the wolves tried to slip between Einarr and Jorir while Einarr focused on the leader. As though they were of one mind, prince and dwarf pivoted. Sinmora slipped between its ribs even as Jorir’s axe laid open its belly.

The kill came with a price, however. The pack leader could not let such an opportunity pass. Einarr howled as its jaws closed about his calf and pulled.

Einarr did not go down. He yanked his sword out of the dead wolf and hacked at the pack leader, but already the creature had hopped backwards, licking Einarr’s blood off its chops.

Another wolf tried for his other leg. Einarr twisted out of the way and brought his blade down to cut across the side of its neck.

The pack leader took his attention from Einarr long enough to growl at the wounded interloper. The opportunist put its tail between its legs and hurried off to join the assault on Erik.

The big man was, of all things, laughing. Perhaps after their encounter with the fimbulvulf that spring, a pack of normal wolves seemed less threatening? Einarr shook his head and refocused on the pack leader. To either side of him, Jorir and Erik fought off the ordinary beasts, their task made easier by the wolves’ focus on Runa in the center.

Arrows flew from above, as carefully placed as Irding could manage. Still Einarr’s focus was on the pack leader. It, too, stood back now, evaluating its opponent much like Einarr evaluated it.

Runa’s chanting grew louder and faster. Did that mean she was almost done? Einarr settled back into his stance, his eyes locked on the red ones of the antlered wolf.


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6.6 – Guardians of the Forest

Einarr stumbled a little as their captors shoved him into what looked like a duelling arena, or perhaps a Thinghall – although, as with the camp fire, Einarr was puzzled what possible use forest spirits could have for such a thing. The floor was ringed with log benches polished more from use than craft, and other than the open door at his back there was only a single, guttering torch for light. In the center of the open, packed-dirt stage in the middle of the room, Jorir, Erik and Irding were just turning to look at who the newcomer might be.

“Ah, there y’are!” Jorir exclaimed.

Runa stepped up beside him, and the door behind them closed, leaving the five with only the flickering light of the nearly dead torch, and no sign of this “Auna.”

“We’re all in one place, at least.” Smiling a little, Einarr scanned the faces of his companions and saw no sign of injury there. “How did they get you three? And why were you separated from Runa?”

“Ah, well, you see…” Erik started, and even in the poor light Runa looked sheepish.

Irding picked up what Erik was plainly reluctant to say, sounding mostly annoyed. “We got out of those blasted tangle-vines, whatever they were, and started trying to follow after you. Then the Lady here spotted a second of the naked women, only this one seemed to be beckoning us on. Led us on a merry little chase – or, rather, led her on a merry chase, with us following. Only Runa kept getting farther and farther ahead, no matter how we tried to hurry, until we couldn’t see her anymore. We couldn’t exactly leave the little princess alone like that, so we started searching. Only instead of your fair lady, we found the bottom of a pit.”

Runa cleared her throat. “In my defense, I thought I heard you all behind me the entire time. Right until I ended up surrounded by huldrekall with spears.”

Einarr shook his head at the ground, stifling the growl that tried to build in his throat. “Well. We’re all here now, and I think if they wanted us dead we’ve played the fool enough we already would be. So. Did any of you manage to find out who this Woodsman is?”

Jorir nodded. “He’s the one they’re fighting for control of the forest. And based on what I’ve seen, it’s’ not going well.”

“But is he a person? Another spirit? Some sort of monster?”

The others could only shrug, and now Einarr did growl in frustration.

“If you are truly not spies for our enemy, perhaps you would be willing to prove it?” A tall woman sauntered out from the darkness, slender as an elf, her hips swaying with every step although the hair on her head was the yellow of old needles and her face was craggy like bark. The old huldra’s voice made Reki’s seem common.

Einarr elbowed Irding, who was staring. Even with Runa there, Einarr found it difficult to keep his eyes on her weathered face. “You are Auna, then? If it is within our power,” he answered. “Should we help you, however, there is certain assistance we would require.”

The old huldra raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? How very mercenary of you. How did you come to be on this island?”

Einarr outlined the last two days in short, staccato phrases, wholly unsuited for storytelling. Then again, this was not a fireside, and he did not care to regale his captor.

As he finished, Auna laughed. “At least you do not expect me to call you poor unfortunates. You’ll need more than a new mast if you want even to try to break free of this place, but I wonder if you have the stomach even for that much.”

Einarr bristled, but she allowed no opening for any of them to object.

“My people are locked in a battle for control over this forest with a dark spirit known to some as a leshy. The Woodsman, we call him, though he is no man.”

Runa shook her head when Einarr glanced her way: not a creature she was familiar with, then.

“This is a battle we are losing. Should the rå be driven from this wood, so will everyone other than the Woodsman and his dark minions – his puppets, really, as they seem to be not so much creatures as extensions of his will. My people seek harmony with the others on the island, but the Woodsman is always red in tooth and claw.”

Her… people. So the hulder were just as much flesh and blood as the elves, then? Einarr supposed that made sense, given the surprises he’d seen thus far. “So what would you have us do?”

“A spell is known to us that will impede the Woodsman’s power so long as it is in place. We would have you go into the center of it’s domain and inscribe it.”

Erik scratched at his beard. “A… spell, you say? Like, some special song?”

“I suppose one might call it a poem.” Auna trailed off then, as though hesitating. “You do all know the runes, of course?”

The men all shook their heads as Runa opened her mouth. “Only I, I fear. Is that insufficient?”

Auna shrugged. “So long as the task is done, I find I care little how you accomplish it. But the lines must be inscribed in the stone at the entrance to the Woodsman’s lair and incanted while he is absent, and I no longer have the numbers to send one of my own with you. Once that is done, though, my people can handle the rest.”

The leader of the huldra grinned, then, and it was a look that set Einarr’s hackles on end. He swallowed. “Give us the spell, then. One way or another, we’ll see it done.”


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6.5 – Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about -”

“You’re coming. With. Us.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“The others?”

Runa shrugged before making noises muffled by her gag.

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

The noise this time was definitely affirmative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents


Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

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.