Tag: Cursebreaker

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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4.28 – Coming Soon

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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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2.27 – Reading the Weave

The Oracle turned her back on him almost languidly and walked back to the finished tapestry. She raised a hand to touch the lyre that tied itself to a tafl king whenever the instrument appeared. “Tell me, the harp. Is that the pretty young maiden from your vision? The one whose father you wish to ask me how to win?”

“Probably. She is the one who gave me what was later the ‘instrument of Jorir’s defeat.’”

The Oracle nodded. “You may need her ruthlessness, but keep close watch on it.”

“Then… a Tuning…”

“Is the black art of song. You didn’t seriously think the only Art that could be turned to evil was weaving, did you?”

“I…”

The Oracle shook her head. “Weavers bind fate, Singers influence the mind, Painters and Sculptors create physical effects, the work of a good Smith is said to have a soul. Which of these could not be perverted? …But that is not what you are here for. Tell me what you see in your friend’s weaving.”

“The black mountain topped with black clouds is his home, oppressed by a darkness blacker than Urdr’s. The king and the lyre dance about outside the darkness, until the lyre is swallowed by it…” He had to swallow. Didn’t she say the lyre was Runa? “And the king pierces the clouds. When the lyre plays, it rains.”

“Not bad. With the proper training, you could have made a passable soothsayer.”

Einarr grimaced, and the Oracle laughed.

“You see how things connect. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but better than expected – even for a newly fledged Cursebreaker.” She turned her attention to Jorir, and her tone became distant. “Smed Världslig, your fears are exaggerated, but not unfounded. The monstrous ones have gained a foothold in your home, have gained the ear of the thane. The svartdvergr of the mountain will soon descend again into the barbarous caves. Even should you defeat the witch in time, her poison will take time to purge. Gather allies to the cause of your lord, and he will reward you handsomely when the time is right. Act swiftly, but prudently, that the Cursebreaker will be ready when the time approaches. You will know the time by these signs: the eagle will feed on the wolf; demons will claim the waves; and dragons shall bear winged spears.”

Einarr blinked. He had seen none of those symbols on the cloth until she spoke their names, but as she did his eyes were drawn to them. Well. This is why she is the Oracle and I am just a prince with no holdings.

Now she turned a gentle smile on his liege-man. “Take heart, young child of the earth. You yet have time.”

Jorir bowed deeply before the Oracle. “My thanks, my lady. What payment do you require of me this day?”

“Though it has been more than a century since you were last here, this cannot be considered a separate weaving. The presence of the Cursebreaker was both the prerequisite and the payment, and so our debts are paid. Unless you had something else?”

“Nay, lady.”

She nodded before turning her attention back to Einarr. “As for you.” She pursed her lips, considering. “Your fate is sufficiently intertwined with the others that I would have you stay here as I weave for them. This is not like to be a quick process, however, and your threads may become knotted in unexpected ways. Do you assent?”

“These men are my crewmates and my family. If my presence is required, I shall not withhold it.” He did not hesitate, although his mind still reeled from what he had been shown already this morning. How was he going to take in the Weavings of all the rest, as well?

“Good. Watch carefully, as we go. You will learn much that will aid you on your way.”

It took two hours for the Oracle’s assistants to re-string the loom, even working quickly. Then Sivid was called up. Images rose before Einarr’s eyes, one after another, while the Oracle shuttled colored threads backward and forward faster than his eye could follow. Some of them made sense. More of them did not.

Here and there the tafl king reappeared. Did it mean the same thing for Sivid as it did for Jorir? If so, he thought it likely Sivid would no longer count him a friend by the end of it: he would be responsible both for setting the man on the path that would get him what he wanted, and for it’s destruction. Einarr was too dazed by the end of it to really take in the Oracle’s interpretation of the weave.

They broke for lunch, all except the two apprentices. They used the time to set up the loom for Arring’s request.

For about five minutes, Einarr stared into the bowl of nut gruel, clutching his spoon in hand. He sighed and stood, shoving the spoon into the mash in the bowl, to stride across the clearing to where the Oracle took dainty bites of the same stuff. “My lady, might I trouble you for a moment?”

“Sit down, Cursebreaker. You have questions about your friend’s reading this morning?”

“I do.”

“Very well. His was a deceptively simple request, was it not?”

“And one I wonder if he won’t come to regret.”

“You’re concerned about the shattering in his path?”

Einarr nodded. “It looked like it was my fault?”

She shook her head. “Only time will tell. I suspect not, however. That is an inflection point, a point of choice, and I would remind you that I told him as much.”

“I… of course.”

The corner of her mouth quirked in what was not quite a smile. “I suppose this is all rather a lot to take in, isn’t it. Ask Avrindân: she can provide you with something that will sharpen your senses this afternoon. There will not be time to read for you or your father today, so take comfort in that.”

“Thank you, …my lady.” She had thus far shown no inclination to give a name, and Einarr was not inclined to test her on it.

The Oracle nodded, and he ate as he moved over to where Avrindân and the girl with a voice like silver bells still worked.


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2.20 – The Third Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2.19 – A Moment of Respite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arring sat forward. “Her loom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2.14 – Heart of a Dwarf

Thane Soggvar turned to the advisor standing behind the throne to his left – a cadaverous shaman Jorir did not recognize. In that same moment, his attention was caught by a figure who very much did not belong in this hall: an elven woman in white, her tall and willowy figure exaggerated by the short, stocky dwarves filling this hall. No-one else took any notice of her, but Jorir thought there was something familiar about her flowing white gown and long golden locks.

When he turned back to the hall another figure had joined them, looking nearly as out-of-place as the elf did. He stood tall, tanned as a sailor and strong in the way of the wolf, but beer soaked his otherwise well-groomed beard, turning the shock of red a dirty brown. Lord Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering even as the contents of another tankard were thrown in his face. The dwarves to either side of Einarr moved, and it was only when Einarr moved with them that Jorir realized his liege lord was shackled.

Horror rose in his breast. No! He opened his mouth to protest, but he was cut off.

Thane Soggvar rose from his throne and took a step towards their captive. “So this is the human barbarian I was told wandered our halls. Bring him forward.”

“My Lord…” Jorir ventured. No-one so much as glanced his way except for Einarr, whose level stare carried a challenge on the back of its disappointment.

“I don’t know how you came here, human, but your kind has no place in my Hall.”

“My Thane.” He tried again, more forcefully this time.

The cadaverous dwarf whispered something in Soggvar’s ear and the Thane nodded.

Jorir blinked in the same moment his Thane began to speak again. When he opened his eyes, the scene had changed.

Jorir now stood in the chapel field, a meadow half-way up Eylimi’s Mountain, above the mines. In the center of the meadow, in a direct line from the chapel doors, stood a stone slab carved with runes and dedicated to the gods of sea and storm. There had been no such thing here when Jorir had left, but the blood-stained granite had plainly seen heavy use in the pair of centuries since. Jorir’s kinsmen stood about the altar, awaiting the presentation of the sacrifice, but he heard no livestock.

Dread sank like a stone in his gut: there was only one way this was likely to go.

A murmur arose from the crowd around him. He turned and saw his kinsmen parting to allow three figures through. Two guards, and the sacrifice.

Einarr.

The man he had sworn his life to for so long as he had use of it. Impulsively, but sincerely. And the man who could save not just himself but the entire holding.

And the man he called Thane was about to sacrifice him to the gods.

Jorir’s feet felt rooted in place, and he could not tear his eyes away from his lord’s face. Bloodied, as though he had been beaten in the dungeon that Jorir had failed to save him from. An iron band was clasped about his neck, and a chain led from it to the hand of one of Einarr’s escorts.

Einarr turned cold blue eyes to Jorir, and the weight of their accusation jolted him out of his shock. He ran forward to the clear space in front of the altar where Soggvar stood with his unfamiliar advisor, somehow looking even more deathly under the morning light.

Two steps from the old king, Jorir fell on his knees and pressed his forehead into the grass. “My lord, please do not do this.”

“Do not do what?”

“When I left, we did not even have this altar. Now you are about to sacrifice a man on it?”

“Blood sacrifices have placated the gods and allowed us to continue our work.”

“But men? Are there no cattle? Have we descended to savagery?”

“The human is a trespasser here and no connection to any of us. I fail to see the problem.”

Now Jorir looked up, betrayal warring with shock in his eyes. He could find no rational response to the implications of his Thane’s assertion. “My Lord, he is the Cursebreaker! If you sacrifice him, it will never end!”

Soggvar turned his head to allow his deathly shaman to whisper in his ear.

“The sacrifice of the Cursebreaker is what the gods demand of us. Step back.”

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

“Who is this shaman, my lord? Why does he pour poison in your ears?”

“He is my priest, blacksmith. Return to your place.”

“My lord, I have sworn!” The words ripped from his mouth. “He is my liege lord, and my friend. I cannot allow you to sacrifice him.”

“You have renounced your clan?” Distance had filled the thane’s voice, the sound of surprise and disappointment.

“No, my thane.” He rose, unbidden, not caring anymore if he incurred Soggvar’s wrath. “But since you say the gods demand the sacrifice of a man, let them take this cursed soul instead of his.”

Silence filled the meadow.

“Everyone here is bound by a grim fate – no less is he. I have sworn my life to his service and I have sworn my life to the clan. Therefore, my blood should serve just as well as his, and the curse shall not trouble me in the afterlife. I shall sup with the gods, and perhaps see your true selves again, for your ‘priest’ leads you astray, my king.”

“And now you claim to understand the will of the gods? You, a common smith?”

“Not as such. But blood sacrifice has never been a part of our ways, and your priest advises you to murder the man I was told might be able to save us. What else could that be but the influence of Hel?”

Thane Soggvar opened his mouth to speak and froze. Silver bells rang out over the meadow.


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2.13 – Fidelity & Honor

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My lord, surely you jest?”

“Not at all.” The Jarl’s face was open and honest, as though the thought never crossed his mind that Einarr might be bound by another oath.

Einarr risked a glance back at the hall: his father’s face was grim, as was Bardr’s. Erik and Tyr looked concerned. Now he glanced down to Jorir, and unless Einarr was very much mistaken that was fear he saw there. Runa, though, gave him an encouraging smile and nod, trying to convince him to go ahead and accept. As though she did not know what her father asked of him.

Einarr set his mouth and turned his attention back to the Jarl. “My lord Jarl, every man under my Father’s command has sworn to return and reclaim Breidelsteinn.”

“Do you not have your own ship, your own crew, now?”

“Why would that matter?”

The Jarl blinked now. “Is Raenshold truly even a memory for you? Is it not merely the stories your father’s men tell to while away the time as you wander the waves? I am offering you the security of your own lands with my daughter’s hand.”

“It is true, we have lived as vagabonds since the Weaving, and my memories of home are faint and dim, their patchwork filled in by the stories told aboard the Vidofnir. But Raenshold is and ever will be home, and I was born to be a Thane, as was Father before me. You ask me now to settle for a jarldom in foreign waters, and let my birthright be usurped again?” Einarr raised his gaze to meet the Jarl’s, unflinching, and pursed his lips. Anger was beginning to smolder in his breast, and he worried he would say too much.

“You have been a homeless wanderer, sailing from port to port with never an end in sight. While you are unwed, that is fine for you, but I am no father if I allow my one and only daughter to lead that kind of life. Her hand in marriage is bound to these lands by a chain even the gods might not shatter.”

“Bound by you alone, and you hold the key.” Rage threatened to boil up, but if he fought his father-in-law over this he lost, no matter who won. “You say you are my father’s friend, and yet you try to seduce me into betraying him? Nay, Jarl. Runa shall be my bride, and none other, and no other than Raenshold shall be our home.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“Actually, I rather think you are. You would make a nithing of me.”

The sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears and the Jarl froze. Einarr looked about, surprised: no-one in the Hall so much as blinked, save one. The strangely familiar lady’s maid with the long golden hair and the elfin features. She curtsied, and as she rose she turned to walk away. The scene in Kjell hall faded with every step she took into the distance, until it was replaced with the alpine meadow where he had first seen the woman. Einarr shook his head to clear it before stepping back toward the path where he had evidently left the rest of his companions. I hope I’m not too far behind.

***

The sound of silver bells rang in Jorir’s ears and he stepped forward over the threshold between reality and dreaming. He didn’t know how it was done, but he had been through the tests before.

The scene in front of his eyes was the last one he expected, however. The light faded, its color yellowing, until he stood in a torch-lit stone hall. To every side svartdverger made merry. It took his eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did he saw the sigil of Chief Soggvar – King of Iron and Brass. I’m… home?

Jorir’s face lit up, for now he recognized the faces of his kinsmen. Some of them he was quite sure were dead, and others he suspected were, but in the world of the Oracle’s trial that did not matter. His eye lit on his brother’s face and he could not smother his astonished grin. He stepped over and put a hand on the other dwarf’s shoulder. “Brotti? What’re you doin’ here?”

“Waiting, little brother. We all are.” When his brother turned to face him, Jorir had a moment’s double-vision: Brotti’s face turned ashen, and the shadow of an axe cut across it. Jorir blinked and the vision cleared.

Jorir smiled again at his brother, but this time it was wan. I had a feeling.

“Go. The Thane would welcome you himself.”

“Aye.” He nodded, studying Brotti’s face even as he clapped him on the shoulder. Living or not, this would likely be the last time Jorir saw him. After a long moment, he turned towards the throne where Thane Soggvar sat looking dour – moreso even than Jorir was used to. Things must have got bad after he left.

Slowly Jorir stepped towards the throne, and slowly he knelt before his chieftain and bowed his head. He felt the large, heavy hand of the king settle on the back of his head with surprising gentleness. It was cold and clammy.

“Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.”

“I beg you to forgive my tardiness, my king.”

The hand raised again off his head. “It is of no matter. We have endured.”

Have you? “Thank the gods,” he said, as though he had noticed nothing amiss.

“What have you discovered on your long journey?”

“I have found the Cursebreaker.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! In the morning, we will sacrifice to the gods for their beneficence!”

Jorir tried to smile in response to the Thane’s enthusiasm, but the signs within his vision suggested he was too late.


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