Tag: Cursebreaker

6.37 – Haunts

The five Vidofnings and Runa now ringed the chamber that grew steadily colder – cold enough, now, that the water from his breath caught in the hairs of his beard. Could enough to redden their noses and fingers, soon. At the center of the room, a purple-black cloud of energy writhed. Between Einarr and this cloud stood Arkja, inviting the tendril that reached tentatively in his direction.

Einarr shifted his stance, his hand on Sinmora’s hilt waiting to draw. After Arkja volunteered, Runa had given him the seed of a plan. Now, if only it worked.

The dark energy had nearly reached brave – whatever he might say about himself – Arkja. Now Runa opened herself to the energy, just as he had. Truth be told, Einarr was still against this, but he had been overruled. She was the only other one who had not come into direct contact with the black blood.

The tendril seemed to pause then, sniffing at Arkja as though it were a hound. Even as the first tendril paused, though, a second emerged, headed for Runa – and somewhat more eagerly. Because she was a Singer? Einarr could only guess. The mass at the center, though, looked just the same as it had at the beginning.

Jorir was next, once the tendril had nearly reached Runa, and once again the earlier arms paused, as though considering their target. Did this mean it could only move one such tentacle at a time? That would be a lucky chance, if so.

More importantly, the center was beginning to appear somehow thin. Where before it had the appearance of an impenetrable roiling cloud, now it was more akin to a thick fog.

Next was Erik and either it began to sense something amiss or it was not sure it liked Erik as a potential host. Hesitant or not, however, still it sent out the questing energy tendril, and now the central cloud was visibly decreased. Einarr thought he could see something small and solid floating in the center of it.

Now it was Irding’s turn. At first, all seemed to be going according to plan. Einarr’s hand tightened on Sinmora’s hilt, waiting for his moment.

Then, without warning, the energy in all of the tentacles but one surged backwards, through the central core and out into the one remaining tendril: the one facing Runa. That one surged forward, towards its chosen target.

Einarr’s scream of denial moved his feet faster than he had ever though possible. In that same heartbeat Sinmora flashed from her sheath.

He could still see the black orb at the cloud’s heart. As his feet closed the distance between him and the orb he brought Sinmora up and swung.

With a crack he felt his blade strike crystal, and a thousand tiny shards rained down to the stone at his feet. Without the orb to anchor it, most of the power dissipated.

But he had not been fast enough to stop all of it. The whites of Runa’s eyes turned momentarily black even as they rolled up inside her head. She slumped to the ground.

“No!” Once again Einarr raced forward, this time skidding to a stop on his knees next to the unconscious Singer. “No no no. This is why I didn’t want you in the circle. Don’t do this…”

Einarr trailed off as he finally realized that they were no longer alone in the room. There, over by the strange jar that seemed to be somehow attached to him, stood a man of about Stigander’s age, cracking his neck and stretching his limbs as though he had been long confined.

Einarr gathered Runa’s limp form protectively against himself. The others closed ranks ahead of him, still leaving a clear view of the stranger in their midst.

“By the gods, it’s good to be able to manifest again,” the stranger said to no-one in particular.

“Who are you,” Einarr demanded. “And how did you get here?”

The stranger turned to look curiously at the six of them, as though noticing them for the first time. “Oh. Hello. Name’s Vali. As for how I got here… Well, that gets a little complicated. The short answer is, I’m stuck with the jar… What’s the matter with your lady friend?”

“Up until just a moment ago there was a large quantity of curse energy gathered here,” Jorir began, but got no further.

“I know. It’s why I’m out of the jar.”

Einarr rolled his eyes. “Some of it got in her.”

Vali nodded. “Ah, I see. Here: I can take care of that for you.”

“And I should trust you with her – why?”

“I already owe you my freedom twice over, man. Do you need more than that?”

Einarr glanced down. Runa was breathing heavily and her eyelids fluttered. He looked back up at the stranger in their midst, still suspicious.

“Good gods, man, where do you think the rest of the energy went? It’s why I’m standing here before you, rather than still stuck in that blasted jar. I can get the corruption out of her without any issue at all, and use it myself.”

Einarr glanced once more down at Runa, then sighed and relaxed his grip on her. “I’m afraid I have no choice. Fine. But if she comes to harm by your hand…”

“Never fear,” Vali said, somewhat more gently now. “I’ve no intention of interfering in another man’s love story.”

The stranger bent down and his fingertips brushed Runa’s brow. A moment later, her breathing calmed, and her eyes fluttered open. They looked normal. As she stood, Einarr inclined his head to him.

“You have my thanks. ”

Vali grinned. “It was the least I could do. You, after all, rescued me from that dreadful little island I was stuck on, and you let me free of my jar for the first time in absolute ages.  I can’t wait to live it up a little – well, so to speak. So, where to next?”


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6.36 – The Plan

Einarr and his companions stood gathered outside the hidden chamber in the river cave. Before them, inside, a glowing purple cloud of magical energy hung in midair. If they wanted off this island, they had to get rid of it. If they wanted to get out of here alive, they had to be very careful about it.

Always before, when Einarr had faced a ghost, there had been some physical aspect to be dealt with, and he had been able to leave the metaphysical to the Singers. But the look he saw on Runa’s face was not one of confidence. And while the wheels were turning, what sort of man would he be if he left it all to her, anyway.

Which left Einarr with the problem of how to get rid of a cloud of magical energy. He thought, if he wanted to, he could take that energy into himself and grow stronger. He even thought he could purify the energy properly…

Einarr shook his head. That way lay madness, and probably his own death. Based on what the old man had said, that was the very same trap he had fallen into, who knows how long ago.

“I think…” he paused, considering his realization. “I think it wants me to use it.”

“Are you telling me that thing’s alive?” Horror warred with incredulity in Jorir’s voice.

“Sort of? Crudely.”

“That doesn’t help us as much as you might think, dear heart,” Runa breathed.

“But it helps us a little? More than I expected.”

Runa hummed. Her eyes twitched back and forth, though, and Einarr was sure she was on the verge of an idea. Then her face relaxed and she breathed a sigh. Runa shook her head. “No, sorry. That won’t work.”

“What won’t work?” Jorir stood stock still, staring at the cloud of energy. Of all of them, he was the second most likely to come up with a strategy.

“Like with the revenant before – draw it out with something it wants, then cut it down when it takes the bait. But the only thing we know it wants…” She trailed off, but no-one needed to guess at why.

Jorir nodded. “Far too big a risk. Far too big.”

A throat cleared behind them, and Arkja’s voice sounded tentatively behind them. “Now, I don’t know what all’s going on with you, why you think it can’t touch you without killing you, but is there a reason I can’t do it?”

The Vidofnings and Runa all shared a look. Erik shrugged. Irding began to puff himself up, getting ready to put himself up as a candidate too.

“Irding, I think you took almost as much of the black blood as I did. Let’s not test the limits of the Matrons’ purification, shall we?”

The other young man shifted his shoulders, visibly deflating, but said nothing. Einarr turned his attention to the newcomer.

“Not long ago, the Lady Runa was kidnapped by some svartalfr cultists. When we did battle with them, they all had black, corrupted blood. So did the monsters in their holds. Some men who were exposed to less than we were have already died of it, or worse. So Arkja, if you think your will is strong enough to resist the corruption, I’m willing to let you try.”

Arkja touched his forelock in acknowledgement. If the man had landed here as a result of cowardice, like he said, then Einarr was inclined to let him try to redeem himself, even if only in his own eyes.

“That still leaves the question of how to destroy the cloud once it makes itself vulnerable.”

Jorir harrumphed. “That’s assuming it does leave itself open when its trying to take you over.”

Erik hummed. “Are we sure it’s going to try to take over whoever absorbs it?”

“Yes.” Einarr could answer that without hesitation. “This is the concentrated curse energy that Guthbrandr took into himself in life. Right now it’s almost as though there’s a voice, whispering in my ear, trying to convince me to make his same error. It wants to be able to act again.”

As though in response, lightning flashed within the roiling purple mass. It may have been his imagination, but Einarr thought he heard a rumble of thunder.

“So no, I don’t know that it will be vulnerable while it’s in the process of possessing someone. I’m also sure I don’t have any better ideas, and this whole Cursebreaking thing seems to be a matter of following my hunches. So, Arkja, if you’re willing, I’m inclined to try it. Unless someone else has a better idea?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Great. Now if we do this right, it should dissipate before any harm comes to Arkja. But how do we do that, and what do we do if that fails?”

***

Arkja stood nervously in front of the chamber door. The others were arrayed around the room, Einarr standing just behind him. Everyone’s weapons were drawn – everyone’s save for Arkja’s, of course.

“All right. Whenever you’re ready, just inhale deeply, like you’re trying to suck it in. And picture yourself breathing it in like smoke while you do.” Einarr took half a step back and stood with his feet shoulder-width apart. As he adjusted his stance, his leg brushed against something, and he heard the scraping sound of ceramic against stone. He glanced down to see a very familiar looking clay jar sitting by his feet, as though it had been there the whole time. Einarr shrugged uncomfortably, trying not to let it disturb his focus. Strange enough that it would appear on their boat on these shores: it had never before appeared off of the deck of whatever ship Einarr was currently traveling in.

Arkja stared intently at his foe. In his shoes, Einarr would have to screw up his courage, as well. The air in the chamber grew chill, and the cloud of purple energy extended a tendril towards Arkja.


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6.33 – Ghost Stories

“There never was any old man.”

Arkja’s pronouncement fell on the deck of the Gestrisni like a brick of lead.

A million questions flooded Einarr’s brain at once, such that he could not ask any of them – merely sat, staring, at the pronouncer.

Irding recovered first. “So this is twice this season we’ve run up against ghosts. At least this one wasn’t trying to entrap us into his crew.”

Now it was Arkja’s turn to gape. “Twice this season? What sort of vessel are you taking us to?”

Einarr held up an open hand, palm towards the deck. “This has been a bad year…”

Arkja hummed, not apparently reassured, but Runa broke in before the talk could spiral out of hand. “It is Einarr’s nature as a Cursebreaker, newly awakened and coming to the fore. Once we are away from the island, I will be helping him learn how to deal with it – but now I must Sing, so that we have a chance of breaking free.”

***

Einarr relieved Irding from his night watch as the first hints of grey dawn touched the horizon.

Irding thanked him with a yawn and pressed an arm against his still-healing rib. As the other man trudged back towards his bedroll, Einarr turned towards the sea ahead of them. There was not a cloud to be seen in the sky, and a pleasant breeze tugged at his hair.

And then, as the light increased, an all-too-familiar shore appeared ahead of them. At first it seemed almost ghostly, and he entertained the idea that it might be a mirage, but as the light rose it grew more and more substantial.

Runa’s night-long vigil had done nothing, save exhaust her voice. There was the shack, and standing tiny on the shore the ghost of an old man. With a sinking feeling in his breast, Einarr made the announcement:

“Land, ho.”

Jorir looked up from the mortar where he was preparing a restorative for their exhausted Singer. “So the Lady’s song…”

Einarr shook his head. “Didn’t help at all. Poor Runa.”

“Well, milord, we expected to be turned back at least once.”

“But we expected to learn something in the attempt!”

A peal of laughter rang out from Irding’s bedroll. “All of that – for nothing?”

The rest of their cobbled-together crew was beginning to rise. Einarr ordered, “Prepare for landing.”

Jorir came up to stand beside his liege lord. “We have learned something, I think. We’ve learned that it’s not an illusion or a trick of the mind turning people back.”

Einarr cast a sidelong look at his man-at-arms. “Which leaves us with – what, exactly?”

“Something intrinsic to the island, I expect, or at least trapped here with us.”

Einarr harrumphed. That was cold comfort at best right now. He could only hope the Matrons were still keeping the corruption of the black blood at bay for those left behind.

The sun was full in the sky by the time the Gestrisni sat once more on the sand of the Isle. Well before that the figure of the old man vanished, although Einarr did not see if he’d done so in the ordinary way or not.

Once they were all on land again a fire was built on the beach, and some few of their more perishable provisions set to roasting. The melancholy mood of the night before still – or perhaps only again – held sway. As they ate, Arkja stared into the fire, a faraway look on his face.

“It occurs to me,” he mused, biting off a hunk of fish. “There’s a story I heard, a local legend, from one of my patrons not long after I landed. Well before Päron, or whoever he was, started terrorizing the town.” He fell quiet for a long moment.

It was Irding who finally broke the silence, once it became plain Arkja was content to let it stretch. “Well? Go on.”

“No one alive has ever known anyone to live in that shack, it’s true… but there are those as talk of a terror that walks these shores, an evil spirit in the guise of an old man. They say calamity follows him like an old friend, and fell magic clings to him. He was the first, you see, first in a long line of devils doomed to be forgotten.”

Einarr, too, sat staring into the fire as he contemplated this. Confusion fairly radiated off of Erik, though – and once again it was Irding who broke the silence.

“How is this supposed to help us?”

“It means the creepy old man who took us in that night may be just as much a revenant as the Päron we fought in the town,” Runa explained, certain that some of the others were just as lost. “And maybe, if we can break the chain binding him to the moral realm we can free ourselves, as well. Not that we have a lot to go on.”

Einarr stood abruptly. “We need to search that shack.”

Runa followed him, up the beach to the tiny shack, as did Jorir. The old man was not at home when Einarr opened the door, although it looked almost as though he had merely stepped out for a minute. A stew, very similar to the one Einarr remembered, already bubbled in the pot for the night’s dinner, and the wooden bowls and spoons did not appear to have moved. All of this, they could safely ignore.

Runa moved to examine the lone shelf not filled with cooking implements, while Jorir and Einarr stepped over to what served as the old man’s bed.

No-one spoke as they searched. It would have felt crass: this already felt like a breach of hospitality. And yet…

Jorir rolled under the crude bed frame even as Einarr lifted the pillow. Beneath it, old and yellowed but otherwise well-preserved, was a bound book. There was a golden key on a fine chain wrapped about the cover, but no lock. Gently, Einarr unwound the chain and opened the book.


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6.7 – A Nearly Peaceful Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It will be over soon enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runa nodded, slowly.

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

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

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

“Doing well so far.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Are you prepared?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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6.3 -Engimýri

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

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

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

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

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

“My lady.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quite right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorir cleared his throat and the spell was broken.

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

“Let us hope so.”

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

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

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


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5.28 – Huginn and Muninn

A fireplace dominated one wall of the long, rectangular room, and in front of that fireplace stood a thick pine pole. A pair of posts extended out from either side of the pole, and once the feathers settled down Einarr faced the impassive stares of two enormous ravens. He swallowed.

Unsure how one addresses the beings one intends to steal from, he took a step further into the room. “I am Einarr, son of Stigander, of Raenshold. I believe you know why we are here.”

One of the ravens cocked its head to the side and croaked “Cursebreaker.”

The other one dipped as though to grab a morsel of food from thin air. “First accursed.”

“I’m… going to take that as a yes.” Einarr stepped further into the room, never taking his eyes from Wotan’s familiars.

The one who had dipped its head lifted it again with a jerk to stare past Einarr. Runa stepped into the hall, all grace and beauty and self-assurance.

“I hope you will forgive our intrusion, noble birds,” she crooned.

The first raven lifted its open beak in the air and seemed to laugh at her pretense. No-one called ravens noble, even if they were a god’s familiars. “Wily,” it cawed.

“Broken Breaker,” the other began. “Unsnarl the web you hang in.”

“Frigg permits.”

“Wotan reclaims.”

“Be quick!”

Einarr started toward where he could just make out a ladder into what would ordinarily be a loft.

“Touch nothing.”

He stopped at the last command. “Which is it?”

Both birds spoke together now. “Be quick! Touch nothing. Cursebreaker must break his own curse.”

“Hand of Hel grows strong.”

“Frigg permits. Wotan reclaims.”

Confused, Einarr looked with a furrowed brow to first Runa, who shrugged, and then Jorir, still outside the door.

“The Örlögnir,” Jorir mouthed. “Just don’t take anything else.”

Ah. Right. He nodded gratefully at his liege-man and hurried for the dimly glimpsed ladder.

The hall grew smoky as Einarr neared the loft, and his steps seemed to echo in his own ears, but he could still hear the clipped phrases of Huginn and Muninn as Runa attempted to speak with them. It seemed to him that they were teasing her, the thought of which amused him more than he would admit – to her.

Up the ladder he went, the side rails clattering against the wall with every step. The smoke above was thick enough to make his eyes and throat burn: he hoped he could recognize the Örlögnir for what it was: it had been a good long time since he had seen Grimhildr spinning, and he didn’t remember much about hers other than it was a long rod with a pointed end.

The loft was filled with chests, stacked haphazardly, many of them half-open. Inside some of them glinted gold or jewels to tempt a saint. Einarr paused before the fourth of these before shaking his head. They had plenty of wealth after the Allthane’s hoard, or at least they should, but they had no other way of quelling the black blood that tainted both their crews.

“Going to have to try harder than that to throw me off,” he muttered as he continued back, his eyes scanning for the half-remembered shape.

One of the ravens below laughed. The raucous caw grated on Einarr’s nerves.

Then, finally, he spotted a shelf running along the side of the loft. An arrow slit in the wall allowed a thin beam of light to slant down along its length. On it lay a series of rods.

“They said it was… ivory inlaid,” he muttered, trying to remember exactly how the wise women had described it. Five of the rods before him, however, had ivory inlays of various designs. That narrowed it down a little, anyway. But what was the type of wood?

Holly? Hazel? Birch? It was something pale, he felt certain. That narrowed it down to four, at least. …There was someone else along who would know. Runa had been there when the quest was handed down, and was a Singer besides. With a nod, he fixed the place in his mind and went back to the ladder to call across the room. “Runa?”

A raven cackled, as though it knew why he called.

“What is it?” She sounded exasperated.

“Can you leave the others to converse with our hosts? I could use a hand.”

“Go, Lady,” Jorir rumbled, audible all the way across the hall.

Runa exchanged a few words with the dwarf, too low for Einarr to hear, and then nodded. She picked up her skirts and headed back toward the loft.

“I’d hardly call it conversing,” she muttered as she dusted off her hands. “Blasted birds just love being cryptic.”

“Aren’t you the one who was excited to match wits with them?”

Runa hummed. “So what was it you wanted me for?”

“There are a lot of distaffs up here, assuming I remember aright what one looks like. I’ve got it down to four. I’m hoping you can help me narrow it down.”

She smiled at him, and his heart skipped a beat again just like it had every time last winter. “Let’s have a look.”

Einarr led her back toward the shelf. “I don’t suppose you managed to figure out what happens if we get the wrong one?”

She shook her head. “Best case? We get back and find out the Matron’s ritual doesn’t work. Worst case, we bring the tower down on our heads and the ritual fails.”

“I was afraid of that. Well. Let’s figure this out right, then.”

The rods all lay on the shelf exactly where Einarr had found them. He had not dared move them around as he sorted, just in case the ravens’ “touch nothing” had been a little more literal than Jorir seemed to think.

“That one,” he pointed to one that looked like birch with ivory knotwork. “Or one of these three.” The last set, all near to each other, was one holly and two hazel, if his woodcraft did not fail him.

Runa pursed her lips. “Hazel and ivory, they said, for purification. …Which I think means it’s one of these two?”

Einarr groaned. He’d been afraid of that, as the only sample there were two of. If he could touch them… but no. All of them were sure to be magical in some way or another. Nothing for it but to go over the lore. “What else do we know of the distaff?”


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4.27 – Aftermath

The black storm blowing around the last of the cult ships had begun to dissipate before the Skudbrun and the Vidofnir limped out of the fullest extent of its shadow. As the sky grew brighter, some of the crew brightened as well, as though the horrors of the mysterious cult were banished with the weather.

Einarr envied them, in a way. He lay back on his bedroll, determined to rest until dinner. He’d only been fighting all day, after all, and that was reason enough. Never mind the strange nausea that gripped his throat, or that he now knew why a Cursebreaker had been named. Who else could be expected to deal with fanatics like those? Sighing, he rolled over, only to find himself face to face with that blasted jar.

A grumble of annoyance escaped Einarr’s throat and he contemplated pitching the thing overboard again. But, no: perhaps Runa would want it, or if not Runa one of the men’s wives ashore. Still, it was more than strange that it should find its way back to the ship like this.

His irritated contemplation was cut off by the aroma of grilled fish and the call to food. Finally. His stomach had finally started to settle as the day’s gory work grew more distant, and Einarr expected food to cure the end of it. Food, and a flask or two of whatever cask they opened up.

Einarr pried himself up off his blanket on the deck, his muscles grown as stiff as his blood-soaked clothes. Most of the rest of the crew looked equally sore: they had earned their rest this day. It was only a shame they had not been able to loot the cult ships… or then again, perhaps not.

The sound of a man retching carried forward from the aftcastle. Einarr winced, knowing he’d felt the same not long before, and joined his fellows in pretending it hadn’t happened. The atmosphere on the ship felt brittle tonight: tight smiles that touched no-one’s eyes, friends whose eyes refused to meet, and not one voice was heard to speak of the day’s victory. Einarr frowned as he approached Snorli and the night’s meal. He could not truly blame anyone, but this could be trouble if it persisted. Well, give them a day to process everything.

They ate in near-silence. Those who did speak did so in hushed tones, and what little Einarr was able to catch had more to do with the Conclave ahead than the storm behind. With a dissatisfied grunt, Einarr filled a skin with ale and moved to join Jorir and Erik in silence.

The Skudbrun still ran just ahead of them, and the difference in the day’s fight was plain in the twilight. Its rails were unbroken and its sail largely whole even if it was painted in the same black blood that had drenched everyone who fought.

It was good that they had a friendly escort for this journey: there were few aboard the Vidofnir fit to fight at present. Even still, if the Skudbrun itself was healthier, the crew still aboard must have been just as brittle. Even over the rush of wind and the crash of waves against the two hulls, as they ate the sound of shouting carried to the deck of the Vidofnir.

Erik grunted. “Anyone care to lay odds they’re fighting about the thralls?”

“No bet.” Einarr shook his head. “Anyone raised to Captain should have better sense than to take monsters in men’s clothing as thralls.”

“Madness takes many forms.” Jorir let that statement hang, and a shiver ran down Einarr’s spine.

At length, Erik broke the silence that descended. “Your man at arms is a bundle of cheer, isn’t he?”

Einarr hummed and looked straight at the dwarf. “But rarely wrong, that I’ve seen.”

“Unless I misread that Bollinn fellow, the issue will resolve itself by dawn.”

There were other concerns that followed that statement, and Bollinn had been a good man to have at his back. “Then let’s hope Captain Kragnir doesn’t come down on him too hard in the morning.”

Erik raised his flask to that, and Einarr and Jorir brought theirs up in agreement. As the light fell, so did silence over the deck of the Vidofnir.

Some hours later, as Einarr lay awake staring at the moon, the splash of a man overboard reached his ears. He started to rise when no cry went up from either ship: had the night watch not seen?

The second splash came from ahead of the Vidofnir, where the Skudbrun ran as a black silhouette against the indigo sky. Even as Einarr focused on the other ship a smaller silhouette launched away from the deck, arms and legs flailing in the air as though they were trying to fly before plunging downward into the icy deep.

Einarr swallowed, worried for a moment about who was throwing whom aboard the other ship. He heard no fighting, however, even as another shape took flight from the deck and plunged towards the sea. No Brunning – no warrior – would allow themselves to be thrown overboard without a fight. I hope Bollinn isn’t punished too severely for this.

If even half of the Brunnings aboard agreed with their Mate, he shouldn’t be. Not unless Captain Kragnir truly was gripped by some sort of madness. Einarr shrugged his shoulders uneasily and dropped quietly back to his bedroll. He counted time now by the splashes of thralls as they were cast into the deep. As Jorir predicted, before grey dawn lightened the sky the splashing ceased.

Shortly after true dawn, the Skudbrun dropped its sea anchor. As the Vidofnir pulled up alongside, Stigander gave the order to drop their own. On the deck of the other ship, Bollinn stood with square shoulders facing their Captain. Both of them had bare steel in hand.


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4.11 – Blitz

The area of the yard in front of the dungeon entrance was, if anything, more heavily guarded than the front had been. As Einarr had feared, their hasty disposal of the torch before had given them away and made getting back in much harder. He glared at Sivid, despite knowing why: should Runa be lost, Jarl Hroaldr would need to name a new heir and Einarr would need to find a new bride. Should Einarr fall, the Cursebreaker fell, and with him all hope of reclaiming their home. It was not a fact he liked to dwell on. Thankfully, the situation ahead of them demanded too much attention to allow room for such things.

Ahead of the dungeon door stood twenty warriors, who for all their helms revealed could as easily have been monsters as men. Einarr was abruptly reminded of the Grendelings appearance under the effect of Astrid’s battle-chant. He frowned. “Looks like it’s four apiece. Think we can kill them quick enough not to draw more from around front?”

“Dicey,” Bollinn muttered. “Wish our distraction had drawn a few more men away from the keep.”

Jorir grunted, scowling at the group blocking their way. “Always like that, isn’t it? Anyone a quick shot with their bow?”

Barri nodded. “Maybe even fast enough.”

Sivid agreed. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can cover you.”

“Good,” Einarr breathed. “I think we’re gonna need it. …Jorir, you come in from the left and I’ll take the right if you’ve got center, Bollinn.”

The hook-nosed man nodded.

“Fast and quiet. Give us to a slow count of ten to get in place, would you?” Einarr directed the question at the two archers, who also indicated agreement. He breathed out, suddenly nervous. “All right. Fast and quiet.”

Jorir dashed off to the left, both faster and quieter than a man would expect of any dwarf, while Einarr hurried a distance to the right, ducking down an alley to put a building or two between himself and the Skudbrun’s Mate. Even a slow count of ten didn’t give them very long to get in position before –

The first arrow whizzed through the air, lodging itself underneath the helmet of one of the guards near the edge of the group. He crumpled.

Time’s up. Einarr pressed his lips together in a grim line as he charged out of the byway toward the stone door they had found earlier.

Another arrow sailed through the air, and another guard crumpled. The guard Einarr charged at looked about himself in a frantic way. Einarr did not give him a chance to figure out what was going on: he cut upwards with Sinmora and the guard’s head snapped backwards unnaturally with a spray of dark blood. Ein.

A few paces ahead of him, a flash of gold caught Einarr’s attention as one of the warriors toppled like a tree, taken out at the knee. A second flash of Jorir’s axe took the enemy’s head before silent shock could transform into a scream. A third man fell to an arrow even as Bollinn impaled another on his blade through his maille.

Now their enemies were reacting, however. The next arrow clanged loudly off of one of their enemies’ helmets even as Sinmora struck another in the throat. Tveir. Jorir tackled the one who tried to run, his ears probably still ringing from the arrow. They were running out of time.

Sivid was charging into the yard now even as another pair of arrows found their targets. Barri’s boast had been no idle one, with shooting like that.

“Cover me!” Sivid made a beeline for the dungeon door. Between him and it were six of the remaining ten guards. Bollinn was locked down. Jorir was still getting back to his feet after dispatching the tackled guard.

Einarr growled and the man who would have been his next target dashed away. All yours, Barri. If they wanted to succeed, they had to get Sivid to the door.

One of the two guards on Bollinn had put his back to Einarr: that was a mistake. Einarr dashed forward and kicked hard at the back of the man’s knee. He staggered forward and then Einarr was moving again, running hard for the cluster blocking Sivid’s path. Bollinn joined him four paces later.

“My thanks,” the other man breathed, his pace not slacking.

Einarr only grunted, his attention on the fight ahead.

Sivid got there first, his own sword flashing like a silver fish at the first of the guards in his path. He knocked the helmet from his opponent’s head.

The face that was revealed there belonged to neither man nor beast, nor any strange hybrid of the two. Einarr pulled up short, but only for a heartbeat. Long enough for Sivid’s blade to flash again and the monstrous head to be parted from its body.

Einarr shook his head. He couldn’t afford to waste time gawking. Sivid was no slouch, but it would be the worst sort of cowardice not to assist with a mob like that. He surged forward, hacking at the nearest guardsman.

Bollinn surged ahead even as another pair of arrows whistled past Einarr’s ears, embedding themselves in the eyes of two more helmets.

Moments later, Bollinn, Einarr and Sivid all stood in front of the dungeon door, catching their breath. Moments later they were joined by the other two.

“We get everyone?” Barri asked as he jogged up, the last to join them.

“Seems so.” Einarr had been watching their little battlefield for signs of life and finding none. “Sivid? Whenever you’re ready.”

Sivid took a deep breath and nodded. “Let’s get to it, then.”

Einarr moved to stand behind the man, his arms folded in a defiant gesture. “We’ve got your back.”

The mousey little man turned his attention to the stone door, now ignoring the world around him. The others joined Einarr, forming a ring to shield the man who worked at the hidden lock.


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3.24 – Unification

“Once upon a time, I too was a young man,” the Allthane began. “Strong of thigh and quick of wit, I was a thorn in the side of our chieftain. Though all knew it, none dared admit that the Chieftan I was bound to serve, as my father before me, had grown weak and stingy with age. He also had no heir, and the loss of his sons is what many blamed for his temperament. I, young upstart that I was, thought it wrong that our clan should be forced to labor under such a chieftain until the end of his days when the rulership should pass to another.

“Yes, my unification of the clans began with a challenge to a man barely acknowledged as a Jarl. Hardly an auspicious beginning, was it not? And yet.

“This Jarl, though he had no reason to, accepted my challenge, and did not even appoint a shield-bearer for the fight. I sometimes wonder, even now, if he was seeking death. If that is what he sought, well, I fear I was the one to give it to him. The duel was rather one-sided, even with all of the handicaps given to one challenging the chieftain.

“After that, it was generally agreed among the other men of the clan that the one with the temerity to stand up to the old chieftain should become in fact the new leader. Why none of them had done so before, I never learned. Never cared to learn, for in accomplishing my goal I had also gathered for myself a loyal following.

“Our ships were yet in good stead, and it being still early in fall at the time, I sent a boat out in search of those which had not yet returned, to inform them of the good news and instruct them to return home and swear fealty. …That boat never returned.” The Allthane looked down for a long moment before finally setting his goblet on the arm of his throne.

“Those who were still at sea, or at least some of them, had remained loyal to the old chieftan… or had merely taken this as an opportunity to cut themselves loose. At any rate, it was not something I was capable of letting stand. They had their winter in whatever port they happened to find, for none of them returned home that fall, and in the spring I led the rest of our ships in search of the turncoats.

“The first set I found sheltering under the banner of the Atlanings. For generations our two clans had feuded, and so there was no cause to hesitate. We warred with the Atlanings for a month, and we crushed them. Their thane bent his knee and swore fealty to me.”

Einarr sat staring at the Allthane, afraid that if his focus wavered he would be lulled into sleep by the tale. Some among the shades and skeletons were already falling asleep where they sat. Evidently not even the Allthane could be excused from a long story, badly told, in this hall. He went on in that vein for some time: Einarr tuned him out after the third conquest, told exactly as dryly as the first. If nothing else, this explained the desire of the unnamed shade to skip over this portion of history.

After a time, how long he truly had no idea, Jorir stomped on his toe to keep him from nodding off. He gave the dwarf a grateful nod. From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Tyr blinking rapidly and elbowed him in the ribs. The older man coughed and nodded in turn. Finally it seemed as though the Allthane was wrapping up his tale.

“And thus it was,” he droned, “that I was granted the title of King of the North and crowned Allthane.” He took a drink from the goblet sitting on the arm of his chair, blinking at the mostly drowsing audience.

Before the Allthane could grow angry with anyone and spoil the Vidofning’s chances of freedom, Einarr stepped forward off of the bench… stone? He had been leaning against with a slow clap. “My lord.”

When the Allthane turned his wrathful eyes on Einarr, Einarr could now see the shade beneath the illusion even there. Flesh clung to the bones of his face with not an ounce of meat beneath, and instead of eyes Einarr thought he saw burning fire. “Have you come to mock me, then?”

“Nay, my lord, but to bury you.” He stepped forward slowly and lowered his hands. “For three hundred years you and your men have endured this torture, and for three hundred years you have added to your number those unlucky enough to wash aground here on the same isle you wrecked on. Has this not gone on long enough?”

“It’s no use.” The Allthane’s voice was oddly wet here. Had he still been human in the slightest, Einarr would have thought he struggled not to weep. “’Twas the wreck that killed me, sure, and many of my best men… but the pile of gold you witnessed earlier was my burial mound, assembled by those who remained of the crew. And yet, here we are, with only this half-remembered feast to console us. Begone, you, and trouble us no further. Take your crew and leave this place. Leave this island, or come the rising of the moon we shall come for you as we have come for so many others.”

The golden brightness faded, and before the five living men stood uncounted shades and skeletons, each of which glowed with faint ghostlight.

Einarr did not immediately turn to go, although he motioned his companions to head back towards the others. “If you have received the proper funeral rites, what binds you to this place?”

The remains of the Allthane shook his bony head, lank hair brushing back and forth against his shoulders, and laughter echoed from his chest. “Why? Would you offer to take on tasks left three centuries undone?”

“He might,” Jorir said. Of the four, he had stubbornly remained. “The Oracle named him Cursebreaker.”

If a corpse could seem surprised, the Allthane did. “Well. Had I tasks which required doing before I could rest, perhaps I would give them to you. But that is not what binds us here.”

Einarr spread his hands. “What, then?”

“Cannibalism.”

Einarr felt as though he had been struck by the stone door above. “What did you say?”


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2.30 – Feast

For as nervous as Einarr had been about the answer to his father’s question, he felt no trepidation at all on the matter of his own.

The Oracle, too, seemed less reluctant before his question than she had before Stigander’s, spending less time than she had for anyone save Arring reviewing her materials. She turned to look expectantly at him.

“My lady Oracle, how might I best win over the father of my beloved without betraying my own family?”

She nodded: it was, more or less, the question he was sure she’d expected. With a graceful efficiency the Oracle turned to her loom and began to spin.

As the hours passed, he found he was just as perplexed as to the meaning of his weaving as to Stigander’s, though for entirely different reasons. Images abounded, but while they all connected to him they did not seem to connect to one another. One small consolation, they all appeared to require him to show his mettle and his virtue… although that may not have been as much of a consolation as it seemed.

Before he quite realized she was done, the rhythmic clacking of the shuttles quieted, and instead he heard a single muted clunk of wood on stone.

In expectation of her next demand, he said “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“No, of course not. You are yet young, even among humans.” The Oracle sighed quietly.

“There are no shortcuts, Cursebreaker.” She paused a long moment here. “Your princess’ father must be convinced that you are not the feckless wandering youth your past would suggest. Prove yourself reliable, virtuous, and valiant, and for the sake of your Father’s friendship and his daughter’s devotion he will agree.”

“Do not make the mistake of believing this easy, for life is often less clear-cut than the tests of virtue you underwent to reach this place.” She turned around to face him and stepped forward. In the next moment, she had taken his hands in hers as though she were his mother. “Truth be told, your father could have told you the same with near as much conviction. He would lack only the certainty that his friend’s opposition was neither fated nor everlasting.”

“Apologies, my lady. I did not mean to waste your time.”

“Not a waste, Cursebreaker. Your reading, and your father’s, have allowed you to see the limits of your perception, and that in itself is valuable training. Your calling has already placed a pair of tasks in front of you, both of which will wait a time. Go. Learn. Gather men to impress your princess’ father. When the time comes, you will see what you must do.”

“Thank you, Oracle.”

“That’s better. Now we should rejoin the others.”

***

If the table that night was any less lavishly appointed than the one when they arrived three days previous, it was only because the dinner guests were less hungry for mead and meat when well-rested and no mushrooms had stewed in the mead. As the evening wore on the Oracle took each of them aside separately to speak of payments.

Einarr gave a sympathetic half-smile when it was Arring’s turn. The man grew visibly tense when she called him aside, and stood a half-step farther away from her than looked quite natural. The Oracle had meant well when she declared the man should remarry… but under the circumstances it had been the exact wrong thing to say.

The apprentices moved around the table but kept quiet, leaving the Vidofnings’ conversation to flow naturally wherever it would. Tonight that was to the laying of plans, for tomorrow or the day after they would set sail once more. Sivid was going on at length about how what was needed now was men, first and foremost, when a slender elven hand fell lightly on Einarr’s shoulder.

“We must yet discuss your fee.”

“Of course, milady.”

She led him away from the table and the fire, and in the moonlight she seemed to glow. “Your request was, in truth, but a small thing. Your education, however rushed, is another matter.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Truth be told, I would rather keep you here, perhaps for a year and a day, to serve as my apprentices do and receive proper instruction. However, I fear time is too short for that, and the Eagle would never agree. You have seen one of the demon ships?”

“Yes.” There was no better word to describe the ship that had stolen Astrid away from his father.

“If they ply the waves already, then experience shall have to teach you. I have at least set you on the path. Thus, this I will demand of you: when your firstborn child passes eight winters, you will send them to me for a year and a day, and they shall pay your debt and gain a proper education in the process.”

Einarr swallowed. “And should my firstborn not reach eight winters?”

“Then you shall send the eldest who reaches that age, although I doubt any such substitution will occur. Do you consent?”

He gave it as a credit that he only had to consider for a moment. An apprenticeship under an Elven oracle was not a chance lightly passed over. “I do.”

“Good. Oh, and do yourself a favor. Learn the runes. Contrary to your father’s opinion, they do come in handy.”

“I shall look into it, milady.”

The Oracle nodded crisply and motioned toward the table where it sounded like Sivid and Arring were arguing over whether coin or crew was most important just now. Einarr had reached the table before he realized she was no longer behind him.


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