Tag: Crone

5.4 – Hasty Departure

Reki came to dinner the evening after their fragrant baths looking satisfied with herself, and Runa came looking chastened. Einarr felt a little sorry for her: if she had spent the entirety of his quest to the Jotünhall in seclusion, as he believed she had, surely this was unnecessary? Moments later, he remembered what he had been told about “tuning,” and felt a little less sorry. Shaking his head, he swung a leg over the bench to take a seat next to his betrothed anyway. The smell of lavender tickled his nose, but on her it brought a smile to his eye.

He set to on the night’s stew, but this was not to be a night for eating and conversing amongst themselves – or with the other apprentices, as he had learned the young women universally were. The oaken crone, the leader of their Circle of Elders, stood at the head of the table as they were eating.

“It is good, from time to time, to have visitors from the Clans. It ensures that we do not grow so wrapped up in our own matters that we forget the wider world. However, brief though it was, on the morrow it will be time for our guests to depart. A matter of no small urgency has been brought to our attention, and while they seek the tools they need to fix it, so have we preparations to make. Do not fail in your quest, and return to us when you have completed it.”

Reki stood. “Honored Amma, you have our thanks. Even were it not for the quest, I should beg our leave of you in the morning. There are many more men who were exposed to the corruption you discovered in us back in port.”

The old woman inclined her head. “Then go forth. Speak with Sor down on the docks: tell him we sent you, and that you require one of his fishing boats. A longship is too large to gain entrance to the Tower.”

Einarr swallowed and wiped his moustache before answering. “My thanks, honored Amma.”

Quiet fell again around the hall as everyone returned to eating. As the low buzz of conversation started back up, Runa elbowed Einarr to get his attention.

“I’m coming with you,” she muttered into her bowl.

He, too, kept his voice low and his face forward as he replied. “Is this something the Matrons have decreed?”

“Something I have decided myself.”

“I’m against it. Who knows what we’ll run into there.”

“I have an idea. You’ll need me.”

“No.” It was far too dangerous. She did not push him farther, but he would have to watch her.

***

The next morning, when the sky was still the pale blue of early morning, the nine set out for East Port and their waiting companions. As early as it was, though, Reki and Runa both rushed about as though they wanted to be gone an hour before.

“Easy, now,” Trabbi was saying. “It’s not like a few extra minutes is going to kill anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Reki snapped.

“Enough.” Einarr stepped in. “We do need to hurry, but racing about like this isn’t helping anyone. Who are we still waiting on, anyway?”

“One of your porters,” Barri drawled.

“Then we’re not waiting on anyone.” Sivid sounded reluctant. “Saetild wanted to keep him behind, said he was worse off than the rest of us. Not that it makes much sense to me.”

“Amma Saetild is one of the best among us with medicine and the healing songs. If she wishes to keep the man behind, there’s a reason. Thus, let’s be off. The sooner we’re back in port, the sooner I can treat everyone else.” Reki scooped up her pack and strode down the path toward the forest, not waiting to see if anyone else followed.

One by one, led by Einarr, they did, and soon were walking beneath the canopy of oak leaves once more. The morning light filtered through the leaves above, turning subtly green. The atmosphere in the forest this morning did much to lift Einarr’s spirits. After the cleansing he’d had at the hands of the Matrons the lingering unease from the battle against the cult had finally faded – reason enough for cheer, he thought. And if evading Wotan’s spies to steal his wife’s distaff was perhaps one of the more foolish things he had ever tried, it felt more like a game than like a matter of life or death.

A rustling from out in the woods caught his attention, and Runa’s voice called out from its direction. “Einarr, come see!”

He blinked, and looked behind him down the path. Einarr did not see Runa there, nor ahead when he double-checked. With a shrug, he turned off in the direction of her voice. May as well see what she wants.

The path opened before him, lusher and more full of life than the road had been, and he wondered why the road did not pass through this way, instead.

“Oh, Einarr, it’s wonderful!”

What could she possibly have found in a forest like this? She couldn’t have been off the path for more than a few minutes. …And why couldn’t he see her yet? “Runa? Where are you hiding?”

“I’m just over here, in a clearing.”

This was beginning to seem strange, but Runa did have a fondness for pranks. This was exactly the sort of thing he could see her doing back in her father’s holdings.

…Only they weren’t on Kjell island. And both Singers had warned them against leaving the road in the Whispering Wood. Einarr stopped in his tracks. In every direction, all he could see was lush greenery, very little of which he recognized. I am an idiot.


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5.3 – Medicinal Bath

Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.

Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.

The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”

“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”

To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”

“More purification?”

“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.

“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”

When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.

Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”

“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.

Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”

Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.

***

All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.

Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”

“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”

The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”

“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”

Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”

“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”

She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”

Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.

“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”

Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”

“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”

“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”

The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”

“Hazel and ivory.”

“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”

“I’m supposed to know that, how?”

“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”

“…I think I’m beginning to.”

“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”

More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”

Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”

Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.


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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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5.1 – Matrons of the Hall

East Port on the island of Breidhaugr sat like a village in the island’s plains, small and quiet and unassuming. Even still, the paint on the wooden buildings did not flake, and the people they passed smiled and greeted the newcomers to port in a friendly way even when they didn’t seem to be trying to sell something. Einarr felt himself relaxing as they tramped through town on their way to the Hall Road.

Nine all told left East Port for the Skald’s Hall: Runa, Trabbi, Barri and another Brunning, and Einarr were joined by Reki and Sivid with a pair of deck hands to carry the chest full of ancient instruments they had found in the ship-barrow.

The Hall Road wandered west through the meadow that seemed to dominate this island toward the hardwood forest at its center, and the party for the most part was content to bask in the normalcy of birdsong and the wind through the grass.

“Mind your step as we enter the Whispering Wood,” Reki announced as they drew near to the hardwood forest ahead. “It is not quite tame.”

“What do you mean?” Trabbi rumbled.

“There are mischievous spirits within, who will whisper in unwary travellers’ ears to lure them off the path. They mean no harm, we think, only their sense of time is… off.” Runa’s grin was as mischievous as any sprite.

Reki sighed. “Yes, but so long as you stick with the little princess here and myself, you shouldn’t have any trouble. These are just whispers, not full-blown hallucinations like the Oracle trials.”

Runa rolled her eyes. “Where’s the use in a good haunting if you can’t have a little fun with it?”

“My lady Runa.” Reki’s voice sounded like an exasperated tutor’s at this moment. “Were you told why you had been summoned?”

“No?”

Reki sighed again. “I think I have an idea. Never mind. Just keep with us and keep to the trail and you’ll reach the Hall without issue.”

Einarr could not keep a chuckle from escaping his throat. Runa was just as impish as ever, and just like always no-one else seemed to get the joke. He shook his head when the others started to ask what was funny. “After the ship-barrow, you’re worried about a few will-o’-wisps? I’m sure Reki can handle getting us through here.”

Now the others laughed, a little sheepishly, and Einarr gestured for Reki to lead the way. He fell in next to Runa and Trabbi, a little further back in the line, and took her hand even as she gave him a look of feigned hurt. Trabbi raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

The road crossed over a stream not two paces before it entered the shade of the oaks, and the friendly burbling of water over rocks was of a piece with the warm light filtering through the canopy and the open space between the trees. The road was clearly marked as it continued to wind, and here and there Einarr spotted grassy clearings where one might settle for a meal or an afternoon nap. He found it hard to credit that this wood might be haunted: it seemed more likely the sort of rumor the local huntsmen would spread about to preserve their turf. He cast a glance down at Runa, one eyebrow raised.

“Don’t let your guard down. How do you think people are enticed?”

Einarr grunted and did not press her on the matter, although he heard murmurs from the other men in the party that sounded similarly skeptical.

The sun had begun to set by the time their road led out of the forest and into the broad clearing around the Hall of Skalds, and with the changing of the light the rumors of a haunting became more believable. He was barely aware of it until he felt his shoulders relax as they stepped out and saw the vividly painted sky above the hall. A breeze picked up, and with the rustling of the leaves on the trees came the faint sound of whispers.

Reki heaved a sigh that sounded surprisingly relieved for how she had been talking. “We were lucky. Let’s not count on our return to port being that easy.”

The hall ahead stood like a dark smudge in the twilit meadow, alike to Kjell in form but bearing the weight of centuries of lore and magic. Were it not for the Singers they escorted, the men might have elected to camp in the meadow and approach in the morning. Reki and Runa, however, felt no such inclination. When the two women strode toward the square of firelight that marked the door their escorts had no choice but to follow.

“We are Runa Hroaldrsdottir and Reki Fjorisdottir, currently aboard the Vidofnir,” Reki announced from the threshold. “We and our escorts seek shelter from the Matrons of Song this night.”

“Be welcome, Singer of Snow, apprentice.” The voice belonged to an old woman, as dry and brittle as unfired clay, but still hinting at its former glory. Unmistakable, however, was her irritation at Runa.

“Thank you, honored Amma.” Runa answered calmly with a deep curtsy, as though she did not hear the rebuke in the Matron’s voice. Einarr schooled his face, both to avoid wincing at the dressing-down he thought she was likely to receive and revealing he was impressed by her composure.

Honored Amma, am I?” An old crone at the far end of the Hall stood, and now Einarr had a face to put with the voice. The woman who now strode toward them could have been sister to one of the old oaks outside: stocky, her former height bent and gnarled but not broken, she carried a walking stick that at present was used only for gesticulating.

“If I were honored by you, child, the wind wouldn’t have carried word about your antics this last spring. If I were honored by you, child, you would be able to join the adults at the Hall table. As it is I see only a spoiled brat in front of me. Go stand by the back while we welcome the Singer of Snow and your escorts.”

Now Runa had the good grace to look abashed. “Yes, Amma.”

The crone harrumphed and turned her attention to the rest of the party. “Well. You might as well have a seat, and please forgive our young apprentice for any trouble she may have caused you. There’s plenty of food: the wind and the wood told us you would arrive this evening.”


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

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