“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.”
“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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