Tag: elf-gift

7.3 – Elf Bargain

The old Matron hissed at his pronouncement.

“Well,” Ystävä said after a beat. “That is quite the conundrum you’re in then, isn’t it.”

“Yes, and made more difficult by the fact that the boy is either an idiot or hopelessly naive. If that’s the way you bargain, boy, I’ll wash my hands of you.”

“Now, now. I appreciate the candor – and I have reason to want to keep him alive, as well.”

“I can’t very well perform your morally unobjectionable favor if I’m dead, after all.”

Saetild shook her head, her expression that most terrifying of grandmotherly looks: disappointment. “So really what you’re saying is you’re bad at negotiation? And it’s okay this time because of the bad deal you got last time?”

“The alfr demand payment in kind, do they not? That was the way with the Oracle, and that is the way in the legends. In exchange for one favor, which will violate neither my nor my father’s conscience, he provided me with a key that allowed me to reach the treasure vault, which I would otherwise have been unable to do. I fail to see the problem.”

“Ah, you are young yet. You have no idea the horrors that can lurk in favors which appear morally innocuous,” Saetild said darkly.

Ystävä clicked his heels together where he stood. “Nevertheless,” he said, “it is still true that, for the time being, I have a vested interest in helping him stay alive. It is also true that I may have an answer for you.”

The alfr turned now to face Saetild directly. “I must speak with some old friends of mine. Within three nights’ time I will come and stand at the threshold of the Conclave, bearing my answer.”

“I shall ensure the Matrons are made aware – of all of it.”

Ystävä grinned then: it was a wild look, like the smile of a wolf or a wildcat. He bowed, again with a ridiculous flourish, lifted one foot high, and stepped to his left, vanishing back into his cut in the air.

Once he was gone, Einarr turned to Saetild. “Well. Since that’s the case -”

“I think it would be wisest if you returned to the Conclave anyway. We may yet find a rune master who will not require an elf-price of you, and it seems there is much else we could teach you, after all.”

“There is much yet to be done before we leave port, honored Matron. Father was not best pleased that I agreed to travel with you today.”

“I cannot stop you, but think. What are you actually going to be doing back in town if you go? Your father will not want your imput on proving those new sailors you found. They finished their repairs weeks ago, and have not yet started loading. At the Conclave, not only will you have access to all our wisdom, but you will know the moment the alfr returns.”

Einarr opened his mouth to protest, but could find nothing that did not seem childish in front of her reasoning. He closed it again with a click.

“Better. I am not accustomed to either explaining or repeating myself.”

“It would be the height of arrogance to turn down wisdom where it is offered, under the circumstances, I think.”

***

For two days, Einarr was kept busier than any apprentice at the Conclave. During the day he was set to reading beginner texts – the only ones consistently written in Imperial. He suspected Saetild had a strong hand in the selections, however: an improbable number were about bargains gone bad.

By the middle of the second day, the Matrons concluded with no small degree of annoyance that the elf’s contact would likely be the strongest candidate for a Cursebreaker in want of magical knowledge. There was, as Saetild explained it, not only a depth of learning to be had among the long-lived elves, but also a pattern to the matter – a pattern set in motion the first time Einarr and Ystävä had spoken.

All through the third day Einarr was restless. He would stare at the pages and see not words but meaningless loops and lines. To clear his head, he would step outside to chop wood – of which the Matrons approved – or run sword drills, of which they did not. Then, his muscles warm and his mind focused once more, he would sit down to read. Ten minutes later, the words would once again swirl into meaninglessness.

By noon, no-one even tried to get him back to the manuscripts. And so, in the height of midafternoon, he was the first to spot the elf’s return.

It was a subtle thing. Einarr set up one log to be split, and the forest’s edge was empty. He raised the maul and split the log into eight. Wiping his forehead, he looked up again.

Standing just beyond the edge of the wood, in brown trousers and a flamboyantly green tunic, a leather vest belted about his middle, a golden-haired twig of an alfr stood staring expectantly in.

The knot of tension that had been driving Einarr all day loosed and he rolled his shoulders. Finally. He picked up another log to split as one of the apprentice Singers hurried out to see what the Whisperer of the Woods might possibly want.

Ystävä sent the young woman running back with a word and a patronising smile. Some minutes later, the full circle of Matrons came bustling out of the Conclave Hall, many of them settling shawls on their shoulders still. Einarr fell in behind them.

The elf waited until they were all gathered, peering at faces until he was satisfied and giving an “ah!” of recognition when he saw Einarr among them. “I have good news. The village I remembered still exists, and they are happy to take on a Cursebreaker. May we speak inside, or must I give their terms standing here like a beggar?”


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7.2 – Seeking

On the morrow, with only a sip of ale to counter the festivities of the night before and while his father proved new recruits, Einarr followed Saetild, the friendliest and least tree-like of the Matrons, down the path through the Whispering Woods. As lovely as the wood first appeared, Einarr felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as they stepped into its shade.

“We’re not likely to run into your little elven ‘friend’ on the path today, are we?”

Saetild grimaced, her grandmotherly face puckering like a prune. “So you’ve met him, then.”

“He introduced himself, yes.”

“Well, the good news is he’s unlikely to trouble you on the path so long as you’re with one of us. The bad news is, he’s one of a very few beings who might know a suitable teacher for you. My sisters and I may well need to invite him in for a time.”

“I’m afraid I already owe him a favor…”

“Then one more should have little impact. Once you’ve dealt with an alfr once, future dealings become easier.”

Einarr wasn’t certain he believed that, having dealt with both the Oracle and the mysterious ‘Ystävä,’ but he supposed it was possible. Saetild, in the way of all grandmothers, kept up a running monologue as they walked. Einarr half tuned her out: it seemed to be largely a recounting of what had happened in East Port while he had been questing, most of which he’d already heard about, interspersed with gossip from the Conclave that might have made sense to Runa but, to his mind, was largely silliness.

“Runa also thought to teach me something of the flow of story – seemed to think that might also improve my chances,” he mused in what felt like an appropriate pause in the flow. Anything to get her to speak sense.

The statement was met with a trill of tinkling laughter. “That girl. If you seemed to have any trouble understanding others’ motives, I might agree. But from everything I’ve seen and heard, you’re good with people. I suspect you already know everything relevant story could teach you.”

Maybe, maybe not. “Did Runa tell you how she dealt with the first revenant we encountered on the Isle of the Forgotten?”

“Oh, the Päronskaft silliness? I suppose there is that, but that comes of being well-versed in the tales themselves, not any deep understanding of how they go together. I suppose someone should look into how she got such old manuscripts…”

Something in the way Saetild said ‘someone’ made Einarr raise an eyebrow. “You added them to her pile, didn’t you?”

The Matron smiled slyly but did not answer.

“How did you know she’d be coming along, let alone that she’d need something so arcane?”

Another sly smile was the only answer he received. Einarr shrugged and Saetild resumed her narration, as though the interruption had never happened. The prickly feeling of being watched returned: something was off this morning.

A peculiar stillness fell around them, and Einarr stopped in his tracks. Saetild, too, stopped where she stood, her plump figure leaning into her walking staff as she trailed off.

“You might as well show yourself, Ystävä. I know you’re here.”

The fair figure of the alfr seemed to step out of a cut in the air ahead of them, and the golden-haired figure offered a theatrical bow. “Did I prove myself sufficiently last time, then? Do I hear my name cross your lips?”

“You canny old fox! This path is protected from your kind: begone!”

“Ah, lady, lady. I was invited. Didn’t you hear him?”

“He never asked you onto the path, and yet there you stand.” She raised her staff threateningly towards the elf, who held up his hands in warding but made no other move.

“I am not on the path at all, dear lady, but above it, I think you will see.”

Einarr cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I have little patience for these sorts of games today, Ystävä. I still don’t believe that’s you’re name, but I did call you by it. And it’s true, your gift was necessary to complete our quest.” He looked at Saetild now. “I thought you said he wouldn’t trouble us with you around.”

“He shouldn’t be able to. This will be raised with the Conclave on my return, you can be sure of it.”

Ystävä, though, grinned, and slipped cat-like around to drape his arms about Saetild’s shoulders. “And am I? Troubling you, that is.”

Saetild jabbed the end of her stick into the elf’s shins. He backed off.

Einarr hummed. “Not yet, I suppose. Why are you here?”

“Well, I live here, in the main.” The mischievous elf waited a long moment before grinning at Einarr’s look of consternation. “Curiosity, mostly. I’d heard that the young Cursebreaker was returned, after what the humans thought was a long time, and wished to see the fruits of my handiwork.”

“All right. You’ve seen them. And now we should be pressing on for the Conclave.”

“The Conclave, where I’ve just heard I’m to be invited to advise the Matrons? I’m here now: why not save us all the trouble of formal audiences and invitations and I can walk along with you, and you can tell me what you want?”

“Because in the Conclave there are protections against your trickery,” Saetild glowered.

“Yes. Namely the other Matrons. Such a stuffy bunch, I have never seen. You’d think they’d never been apprentices themselves.”

Einarr looked down at Saetild, who was glaring ostentatiously at the alfr, and sighed. “Is there any actual harm in it?”

The old woman sighed dramatically. “No. There’s no actual harm in him at all, that we can tell. He’s just a pest who likes to waylay travelers and lead astray apprentices for his own amusement.”

Before Ystävä could put on a show of being offended, Einarr opened his mouth. “Good. I need someone to teach me the reading of runes, or my Calling will be the death of me.”


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6.30 – Discoveries

“As for you, my Lady Singer, I have questions.”

Runa smiled up at him impishly, hugging his arm. “Walk with me, my Lord, and I may have answers to give.”

Einarr and his betrothed wandered the empty streets arm-in-arm, neither of them minding in this moment that desertion that had bothered him not long before. Eventually they came to a broad, tree-lined green, and Runa guided him over to sit in the shade of a large oak. Only then did she let go of his arm, to turn and lean against his side.

“Even half a season seems like such a long time…” She sighed, content.

Amused, Einarr arched an eyebrow. “Even after waiting seven years from our first meeting?”

She jostled his ribs with an elbow. “That’s different.”

He chuckled. “You’re not wrong. And when Trabbi told me you’d been captured…”

“You have no idea how surprised I was they’d gone to Lord Stigander for help.”

“Surprised… and glad?”

She nodded, then changed the subject. “So what did you want to ask me?”

He laughed again, this time thoughtful. “Oh, where to begin. Let’s start with how you knew the ghost’s story.”

Runa shook her head. “Honestly? I guessed. There are a limited number of reasons someone ends up here, most of which have blessed nothing to do with offending Wotan’s familiars.”

“Hey now.”

“I tease, I tease. In all seriousness, though, most people end up here through cowardice, ignominy, or both. When it didn’t burst our ears immediately, I thought I might be on to something.”

“And naming it Päron? How did you jump from ignominy to a children’s fable?”

“Stories… change over time. It’s one of the things the Matrons teach us, early on.” Here she paused, as though considering.

“While we were with the Matrons, I was given a good-sized list of manuscripts to copy – it’s part of how they teach us. Mixed into this stack were some shockingly old parchments. The sort of thing the Matrons typically handle themselves, because of how delicate they are. It may have been a mistake, but I doubt it. Anyway, one of these manuscripts had a much older telling of the Päronskaft story, followed by someone’s extrapolations of the story’s original source…

“And it was like a puzzle box popped open in front of me while you were fighting. The Päron who was described in that history, whose story morphed into an imp spinning gold, would fit exactly with the character I had just described.”

“Huh.” Einarr sat for a minute, considering the wild improbability. “I guess,” he added after a long moment. “I guess that’s lucky for us.”

Runa sat very still, almost as though she were frozen. “Maybe so, or maybe…”

A long pause followed, and the next words she spoke all came out in a rush. “Einarr, I think someone is looking out for you. Someone powerful. Most Cursebreakers don’t survive their first challenge, but just since you were named this spring you’ve bested three.”

Einarr blinked and tried not to laugh. Not just after, but because of the events of this summer, she decided he was being protected? It was almost ludicrous on its face.

He must not have hidden his reaction as well as he thought, because she elbowed him in the ribs again. “Don’t laugh.”

“Sorry, sorry. But you have to understand, this has been the roughest season I can remember, especially for lost crew, and we haven’t much more than the Althane’s horde to show for it… Don’t cheapen those lives we lost, Runa. The only outside ‘help’ I’ve had this summer came from that weird elf who insisted on giving us that broach.”

He could feel her stiffen, as though he had managed to offend with that. Well, so be it, then. The Vidofnir had paid in blood and treasure for what they’d accomplished, and he did not wish that lessened by giving credit to some nameless other.

Neither, though, did he want to weather the storm of an angry Runa – and there was yet one thing he needed to ask of her. “Runa, I need a favor -”

“There you are!” Erik’s voice cut through the air, shattering the stillness even as he cut off Einarr’s request.

Einarr sighed. It would have to wait, then. Erik wouldn’t have come like this without good reason. “Here I am. What’s going on?”

The big man grinned. “You need to see this. And then remind me of it if I give you crap about the raven feathers again.”

“Oh?” This should be good. Erik was practically bouncing with excitement.

***

Erik led Einarr and Runa back to the harbor, where Arkja’s less experienced men waited. (At least, Einarr hoped they weren’t trying to guard anything. A child could have snuck past them.)

“So what was it I just had to see?”

“Just wait.” Erik walked up to the large double doors that led into a boat shed. Swinging the shed open, he said, “That little tunnel of Arkja’s isn’t the only secret in this town.”

Inside, the building was dominated by a large trestle such as one might use for boat repair – not that Einarr thought it would be worthwhile bringing the Gestrisni all the way here before they tried to fix her. But that wasn’t the interesting part.

In what would otherwise be a wall of cabinets and hanging tools, a door stood open. Behind that door, Einarr saw what was unmistakably gold. He looked at Erik, agog.

Erik grinned. “My thought exactly. Gestrisni’s got a good-sized hold for what she is.”

“And the gods only know we could use a break like this. Have you…”

“Counted it? No, not hardly. I’d guess something less than half what we got from the Althane’s horde.”

“How did you…” Einarr shook his head. “No. There’s a story here, I’m sure, but it can wait. Who found it?”

One of the fishermen, a man with lank yellow hair and scars crisscrossing his earnest face, stepped forward. “I did, milord.”


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