Tag: leshy

6.15 – The Test

The five spent a second night in the windowless meeting hall, although while the door was still guarded this time they were not alone. The hulder had moved their wounded to biers lain about the hall. Some of the huldrakall were up and about, looking as restless as Einarr felt. Wanting, he expected, to be out defending their village again that night, but not healthy enough to be of use.

Irding sat against the wooden wall, one of a handful with broken bones who could do little other than laugh ruefully and accept their position. Jorir had been conscripted to help tend to the wounded. Runa, sitting on a large rock in the center of the hall, sang a peaceful melody. Einarr didn’t think there was any magic in it, but it served its purpose of soothing nerves. Mostly.

Einarr and Erik tried not to join the most restless of the warriors in their pacing. A niggling little voice in the back of Einarr’s mind suggested that, if it had failed, it would be his fault. They had been told, after all, not to fight the Woodsman, and he had gone and bashed its head in. If that had actually been a head, of course. So, instead of pacing, Einarr allowed himself to chew his lower lip.

After a time, the sound of fighting drifted through the walls. It sounded… less fierce, somehow, than the other night, although from their windowless cage it was impossible to tell how the battle actually went. Now he did pace, a growl emanating from low in his throat. Were those cries animal puppets of the Woodsman, or were they hulder? He could not tell.

As gradually as it arose, the sound of fighting faded away. Einarr froze in his tracks. The battle was over he was sure, but to what result? He stared at the door, as though he could see the result of the spell in the grain of the wood.

A hand reached out to touch his arm and he started.

“Come and sit down, love,” Runa murmured softly. “Rest. We will learn in the morning.”

“Who can rest?” Despite his words, he allowed himself to be led over towards the center of the hall.

“The exhausted and the wounded. Sit, and I will sing again.”

“Your voice?”

“Just fine, thank you. Their herb-witches have brewed something restorative in the water.”

Einarr settled himself on the ground beside her, knowing she was right but intending to maintain vigilance through the night anyway. He could sleep once he knew he hadn’t accidentally destroyed the hulder. Runa’s song held no more than the common magic tonight, after all – that known to soothe the nerves of man and beast alike.

***

When Einarr awoke, the door stood open and daylight poured in. Runa smiled down at him, looking as though she had not moved since she lulled him to sleep. That, surely, was nonsense, though: she could not have failed to take her own advice, could she?

“Did we win?” That was not quite what he’d intended to ask, but close enough.

“You can ask Elder Auna yourself. She’s waiting on us.”

Einarr scrambled hastily to his feet. “And you didn’t wake me?”

“Of course she didn’t. You deserved your rest. Huld knows you’ve got your work cut out for you, from what your dwarf says.”

“I see.” Einarr offered the elder huldra a respectful bow, then hesitated. “The fisherman we met on the shore called this place accursed, the Isle of the Forgotten. Is that true?”

“I’m afraid so. This village used to care for a forest on Kem. The humans began to pay us less and less mind, and fewer and fewer sought our blessings. Then, one day, we realized we had not seen a man in over a year, and the forest had changed around us. We were no longer on Kem, but here.”

Runa gave a small shudder. “It’s terrible, when you think about it. I’m given to understand that the Woodsman is even older than Auna.”

“More primal, rather. But that is hardly important. You came in search of a mast, and we will gladly allow you to cut a suitable tree.”

“We did it, then? The leshy is contained?”

“I… believe so. Certainly its puppets seemed aimless last night. This has happened before, of course, when the leshy has taken significant damage and had to reform, but even if that were the case you say you were still fighting when the spell took effect. I judge you to have kept your end of the bargain, and therefore I shall keep mine.”

“You have our thanks. Tell me, are there more people here on the island? Thus far we’ve met you and the fisherman who took us in out of the storm…”

“There is a human town on the far side of the forest, although I cannot promise you will like the inhabitants. If you wish to go there, you must pass by the foothills, and that is a treacherous path.”

“I understand. Thank you, Elder Auna.”

She swayed, like a tree in the wind, in answer. “Good fortune to you. Remember that you have made yourselves a friend to us, and do not hesitate to call on that friendship should you require it.”

“We will.”

Auna turned then and left the meeting hall. When she had vanished from sight, Einarr turned on his heel and walked stiffly over towards where Irding lay recuperating, beckoning the others to follow.

He crouched beside Irding, who once again lay back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded as though he had been drugged. Likely he had been.

“All right. We’ve secured ourselves a mast, or at least the ability to make one. Hopefully any other lumber we need to fix the boat, as well. That still leaves food and water, and charts if there are any to be had here. Auna says there’s an actual town on the island: that’s probably our best chance to resupply before we try to escape. And we still don’t know how one escapes this place. I say we chance it.”

“Count me in,” Irding mumbled. Whatever they had given him, it was much stronger than willow bark.

“Sorry, Irding. I’m not taking you deeper into this forest until your ribs are recovered.”

Irding managed to look offended by that even through the haze of the hulder medicine, but all that escaped his lips was a sound akin to a squawk before Erik backed Einarr up.

“He’s right. You need time to mend before we go back to rowing for our lives. Rest up: we’ll handle this.”

Irding grumbled, but there was nothing he could have said just then to convince them to take a wounded man along. “On one condition,” he finally conceded. “You have to tell me anything interesting that happens. Anything.”


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6.14 – Aftermath

Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.

“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.

Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.

Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”

“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”

Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”

“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.

Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”

“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”

“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.

Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”

Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”

Jorir harrumphed.

“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”

“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”

Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”

“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”

***

The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.

Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?

Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.

Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.

When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.

The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.

The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”

Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”

“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.

Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”

“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”

“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”

“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”

Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”

She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”

“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.


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6.13 – The Woodsman

The horned wolf stalked a few paces to Einarr’s left and lowered its head, staring down its opponent. It growled and tossed its head as it turned and stalked several steps in the opposite direction. It could not circle its opponent as it wished. When it snarled again, Einarr brought Sinmora up, poised for an overhead strike.

The possessed wolf bounded in for another attack, but as it did it seemed to grow, and its silver fur grew shaggy, green, and mossy. Soon it stood on two feet, no longer a wolf at all. Surprised, Einarr staggered back a step as Einarr and Jorir came to flank him. Runa’s rhythmic chanting had not faltered.

Einarr saw no more wolves: even the one that had watched him hungrily after falling back with its tail between its legs was gone. Now it was just the four of them and a creature that could only be the Woodsman.

A giant, Einarr might have called it even a year ago, although closer in height to the fimbulvulf than to Fraener. The suggestion more than the fact of a pair of legs, and arms like great sweeping tree branches. And, sitting atop the over-broad “shoulders,” the wooden skull of a stag.

The Woodsman gave a roar like the crashing of wood as it closed the distance between itself and the interlopers, even as Runa’s chant built into a crescendo.

The leshy swung at the three men with one club-like arm, turning its whole body with the blow. Einarr hurled himself forward into a roll and felt the wind of the branch’s passing far more closely than was comfortable.

They couldn’t move out of the creature’s path, however, not until Runa finished with her part. Einarr came out of his roll in front of one tree-like leg and hacked at it with Sinmora. The blade embedded itself in the wood, but did little other than knocking free some bark.

The thudding of axes signalled Erik and Jorir’s attempts to slow the unfamiliar monster, to similar effect.

“You almost done?” Einarr called behind him, yanking free his blade. Not that Runa could answer him. He looked up: with a little luck…

The “leg” he stood before was gliding towards him. Now or never. Einarr took half a step back and ran forward, scrabbling up the trunk in hopes of grabbing hold of a branch.

He was in luck. Just as he lost the last of his momentum, Einarr was able to throw his sword arm over a branch jutting out from the creature’s arm as it swung past. Now he was sailing through the air, hanging on by an elbow to what was effectively a tree trying to kill him.

His life had taken a definite turn for the strange somewhere along the line.

At the top of the swing, Einarr managed to loop a leg over the branch he had grabbed hold of and pull himself up.

Moments later, a pulse of energy spread out through the clearing. The Woodsman stopped moving, just for a moment.

That moment was long enough. In that space where the leshy was frozen, Erik and Jorir both buried their axes in its trunk. Arrows flew from Irding’s tree, although it was uncertain what an arrow could do to such a thing. Einarr began to run up the limb he had pulled himself onto.

“It’s done!” Runa’s voice seemed to echo through the clearing. “Let’s get out of here!”

They were not supposed to try to fight the Woodsman. Auna had said they thought it was unkillable, and Einarr could already see why. But as his feet carried him closer to the stag’s head on top of the furious trunk, he could see no way out but forward. A yell escaped his throat as he charged the creature’s head, Sinmora raised high for the strike.

Several things happened at once as he reached the wooden skull. First, Sinmora cleaved into it and it shattered like a rotten log. Second, a vine lashed across his back and caught around his leg. A skull-shattering cry echoed among the trees. And the five companions were hurled bodily from the clearing.

The moon had long since set, and the world was beginning to lighten again, by the time the five reunited around Runa, who was once again tending to a wounded, groaning Irding. Had it not been for the sound, they might have searched for each other a good deal longer.

Erik kindled a small fire from dead tinder near their impromptu campsite, and Jorir promptly set some stones over it for heating water. When Einarr arrived, he was grinding herbs for a poultice for their injured companion.

“So,” he said, his voice low to avoid carrying. “How do we know if we succeeded?”

“We get back and Auna’s people are still there, I think,” Runa answered. Her song magic had done what it could for now. They would have to wait for Irding to regain consciousness on his own, and for Jorir’s poultice to do its job.

Erik grunted. “Tough going, with an injured man.”

“Not like we know if there’s any other help nearby.” Jorir was laying strips of bandage over the poultice herbs now.

“No. And as much as I hate to chance it, we should all try to get some sleep before we go wandering about in the forest again. Be a really stupid reason to get lost, trying to find our way back exhausted.”

“I’ll keep watch,” the dwarf volunteered. “The Woodsman probably still has spies about, an’ I doubt I’ll be sleeping anyway.”

“My thanks,” Einarr nodded at his liege man. He leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree and shifted his shoulders until he found an almost-comfortable position.

Erik lay back on the ground where he sat, staring up at the canopy. He sounded uneasy when he spoke, but the reasons were all too many and too obvious. “Good night, then.”


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6.12 – Wolves

The exposed slate of the cave walls shone white in the moonlight, a gaping maw of blackness beneath daring them to enter the Woodsman’s lair. Einarr whistled through his teeth – one long, one short, one long again. Rustling in the underbrush signaled his companions’ arrival, and so Einarr pointed ahead at what Runa had found. “Perhaps we haven’t entirely lost fortune’s favor?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Jorir grumbled. “How do we know he’s not at home?”

Runa kept her voice to a whisper when she snapped back. “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that even if we’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon.”

“Think you’re up for climbing a tree, Irding?” Einarr was thinking aloud more than anything. “We’ll need a lookout anyway.”

“Think I’ll manage somehow. I don’t suppose I could get another pinch of willow bark to chew?”

With a harrumph, Jorir tossed him a small pouch. “Don’t use any more than you have to. That’s all I have.”

Irding hummed even as he helped himself to a pinch of the pain-killer. “Right. Up I go.”

The forest around them began to stir as Irding, injured and in pain, rather loudly scaled a nearby oak. There was no time to waste. “Runa. Let’s go.”

Runa was moving before he finished speaking, slipping out into the clearing as silently as she had moved the night they had attempted to elope. Einarr thought it best not to question why she was so skillful at sneaking. Knowing what he already did of her as a child suggested an answer, anyway. He followed close behind, and Erik just a pace behind him.

No sooner had they crossed the threshold from shadow to moonlight than the forest behind them came violently to life once more. Irding wrapped arms and legs about the trunk as the tree began to shake, although it did not seem able to do more than that. Grimacing, Irding shimmied up to hug the tree at a good height to see around.

On the ground, Runa had in hand the small chisel and hammer that Auna had provided her. She knelt beside the bare slate at the entrance to the cave and began to chant under her breath even before she brought the tools to bear. Einarr, Jorir, and Erik took up positions around her, weapons drawn.

No sooner had the chisel clinked against the stone than the first wave hit. The grass grabbed at their boots, even as flocks of birds dived at them. That they were pecking at Einarr’s head and not clawing with talons told him they not owls, but that was cold comfort here. He used Sinmora not as a sword but as a swatter, waving it about to keep the creatures off his head. The birds did, slowly, die at their feet, but none of them kept a kill count.

Runa’s voice grew to be audible over the din of screeching birds, and the steady beat of the chisel kept time.

Einarr slashed through a cloud of the Woodsman’s possessed minions, knocking one from the air and guarding his head from the rest. In the momentary gap caused by Sinmora’s passing, he saw silver-furred wolves stalking out of the wood from all directions.

The wolf directly in front of him had antlers. It snarled, showing larger than average teeth.

Einarr stilled, his attention fully on the new threat. The birds flew off as though dismissed.

The wolves prowled forward. Except for the one, they all appeared to be normal. Einarr met the glare of the antlered wolf from under his lowered brow and raised Sinmora. He would claim this challenge.

The wolf snarled again and lunged forward. In a heartbeat the antlered wolf closed the distance, and Einarr frantically swung Sinmora down to turn its bite. No natural wolf could be so quick: a gift of the leshy, perhaps?

Einarr could spare no more time on consideration. The antlered wolf snapped at his legs again and again, with odd twists of the head as he dashed back out to strike again. Trying to trip Einarr with the horns. Sinmora cut its hide, but shallowly.

Runa still chanted over the nearly inaudible beat of her hammer and chisel.

One of the wolves tried to slip between Einarr and Jorir while Einarr focused on the leader. As though they were of one mind, prince and dwarf pivoted. Sinmora slipped between its ribs even as Jorir’s axe laid open its belly.

The kill came with a price, however. The pack leader could not let such an opportunity pass. Einarr howled as its jaws closed about his calf and pulled.

Einarr did not go down. He yanked his sword out of the dead wolf and hacked at the pack leader, but already the creature had hopped backwards, licking Einarr’s blood off its chops.

Another wolf tried for his other leg. Einarr twisted out of the way and brought his blade down to cut across the side of its neck.

The pack leader took his attention from Einarr long enough to growl at the wounded interloper. The opportunist put its tail between its legs and hurried off to join the assault on Erik.

The big man was, of all things, laughing. Perhaps after their encounter with the fimbulvulf that spring, a pack of normal wolves seemed less threatening? Einarr shook his head and refocused on the pack leader. To either side of him, Jorir and Erik fought off the ordinary beasts, their task made easier by the wolves’ focus on Runa in the center.

Arrows flew from above, as carefully placed as Irding could manage. Still Einarr’s focus was on the pack leader. It, too, stood back now, evaluating its opponent much like Einarr evaluated it.

Runa’s chanting grew louder and faster. Did that mean she was almost done? Einarr settled back into his stance, his eyes locked on the red ones of the antlered wolf.


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6.11 – Field Dressing

Einarr kept a nervous watch while the others saw to Irding’s field dressing, neither of them certain how much good a watch would do in a wood where the trees themselves might rise up against you. Erik, being not terribly skillful with medicine, inspected his son’s maille while Runa and Jorir did what they could for his ribs.

“That bear ripped into it pretty good, Irding.” Disgust filled Erik’s voice. “You’re sure the stenjätte didn’t damage it?”

Irding grunted in pain. “Jorir checked it over on the boat, same as yours.”

“Is it still wearable?” Einarr did not look back at them. Worrying about wolves at this point probably wouldn’t do them any good, but he had heard them, earlier. A wolf pack ambush, now, might be more than they could handle.

“Oh, sure, long as nothing tries to stab him in the chest again. The links aren’t broken – quite – but they’re more than a little bent out of shape.”

“It’s not like – oof – I’m going to be doing much fighting for a while anyway.” The strain was audible in his voice. “My bow cracked same time my ribs did.”

Einarr and Erik both groaned at that revelation, although it would have been a small miracle if it had not done so.

“Use mi-” Einarr started.

“Use mine,” Erik said at the same moment, his voice more insistent. “I’m better off in the thick of things anyway.”

“You sure you can draw that?” Jorir sounded skeptical, but Irding laughed.

“If the old man can pull it, I can pull it.”

Before the one-upmanship could go any farther, Einarr interrupted. “If you’re done, we should get moving again.”

“I think we’ve done what we can,” Runa said.

“Then let’s go.” Einarr re-shouldered his own bow and checked that Sinmora was clear in its sheath. They’d sat around too long already, and the forest had begun to grow restless around them.

As they left the small clearing they had claimed, the foliage closed in behind them.

Irding’s wound slowed them, and as the light in the wood grew warmer with the waning of the day they still had not spotted the cave Auna had told them to look for.

“We’re lost, aren’t we.” Runa finally said what they had all been thinking for several hours.

Einarr looked at the trees surrounding them. “In a wood like this? We could be walking in circles a hundred feet from our goal and never know it.” He growled, annoyed. “If we don’t find a way to blaze our trail, we’ll never get out of here. Has no-one seen any rocks?”

They didn’t dare cut their signs into living wood, not in the Woodsman’s territory, and neither Runa nor Jorir had charcoal on them. In a less overgrown wood they could have used dead twigs or leaves, but he didn’t trust those not to be gobbled up by the rapidly growing vines. That left rocks, or carving into the soil itself.

The others all shook their heads. With a sigh, Einarr drew Sinmora. They had to do something, and if the battlegrounds were anything to judge by, this might be safe. “If this brings the leshy’s servants down on our heads, I’m sorry.”

Without another word, Einarr plunged the point of his sword into the earth to carve a large arrow in the dirt.

Silence reigned. For a long moment, none of them dared move. Einarr strained his ears, listening for any sound of outrage from the wood around them. When it did not come, he sheathed his sword again. “Right. Let’s go.”

The light grew feeble, and Irding’s breathing ever more labored. The huldra were counting on them, and the longer this took, the more tenuous their position became. Even still, Einarr knew they would have to stop and seek shelter soon. A miserable camp that would be, with no fire and no liquor, but he had trouble seeing any way around it.

“We should find a place to rest,” he said aloud after taking another brief survey of the wood around them.

“Auna is expecting us tonight, is she not?” Runa reminded him.

“I rather got the impression that she was hoping, not expecting,” Erik rumbled. “She said herself that none of the huldraken had ever reached the lair. She can hardly fault us for not finding it in one day.”

“Runa’s right.” Irding said, although they could all hear the strain in his voice. “I’ll be fine. We should keep going.”

“The forest becomes a battleground at night,” Einarr said. “And we’re going to want to observe the clearing before we just go sailing in – which will be difficult with you panting like a warhound. We’re camping.”

He heard no further objection, and his companions spread out to search for a decent place where they could all curl up on the ground within view of each other.

Not many minutes later, Runa’s voice came to his ears, drifting as though on the wind through a tall berry bush. Einarr crept off to where she had disappeared into the bushes. “What is it?” he whispered.

“Look.”

There, not fifty feet further on from where they crouched in the bushes, Einarr could see the soft glow of rocks in the moonlight. They rose above the underbrush: from here, he could tell no more. He nodded at Runa before creeping forward.

Ahead of him, a bright spot in the near-blackness of thick forest at nightfall, was a clearing with a large cave in the center of it. No underbrush encroached past the ring of sturdy oaks that surrounded the rise of slate: there was only grass and moonlight, and an apparently empty cave.


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6.10 – Grasping Branches

As though on cue, the forest itself seemed to come alive around them. The grass and the twining berry vines that trailed along the ground reached up to grab his boots, and the bushes and brambles around the clearing began to visibly grow into a wall. So much for not attracting attention.

“Run!” Einarr suited words to action and sprinted for the far edge, around the bear, hoping the others would be quick enough to outpace the rapidly coiling plant matter. Runa he had no fear for, as she still sat on his shoulders.

Erik practically stepped on his heels, he was so close, and Jorir was right behind him. There came a crash of breaking branches and a curse from Irding. Einarr turned in time to see the man’s axe raised high.

“Irding, no!”

It was too late. The iron axe blade chopped down into the vegetation and Irding, his breathing heavy, surged forward.

The branches redoubled their growth, seeming to reach after him like grasping claws. Einarr had not been certain until that moment that using a weapon would draw any more attention than wrestling the bear-creature had, but here was the proof. The forest around them erupted into raucous chaos. Crows cawed from all around. Wolves howled. Bears roared – although not from just behind them, thankfully. And even over all of that, Einarr would swear he could hear the plants that hindered them growing.

Irding’s face was pale and pained, and his breath came heavy. Einarr frowned.

“Erik. Carry him.”

The big man grunted, and without waiting for Irding’s inevitable refusal scooped his son up over his shoulder like a sack of cabbages.

Irding gasped in pain, but they had no time to resettle. “Bear with it,” Erik grumbled, and they were off again.

Einarr had no idea how long they’d run before the grasping vines slackened their pace, as though unsure of where their quarry had gone after such a long chase. Einarr had no doubt the plants had been hunting them. Had anything else? He shook his head as he slowed to a jog, and then a stop. “I think we’re clear.”

“For now, maybe,” Runa said. “Are you ever going to put me down?”

Einarr dropped to one knee and unwrapped his arm from around her legs. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten he was carrying her – the weight of another human on his shoulder was not something he could forget while running – but this was the first moment they’d had to pause and catch their breath. Runa trailed her fingers along the line of his jaw as she slipped gracefully down. It was thanks enough, so far as he was concerned.

Erik raised a hand to his forehead and looked around. Irding appeared to have passed out during the run. “Does anyone happen to know if we were even running in the right direction?”

Einarr was reasonably certain they had started out in the right direction, at least, but once they were moving his biggest concern had been keeping them out of the clutches of the forest. He shook his head. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t tell you if we’re any closer to the lair or nay,” Jorir said, pointing off to their right. “But I’m pretty sure we need to head that way.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow before turning to look. “You mean because it looks the darkest and most impassable?”

Jorir nodded. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t it?”

Erik hummed, stepping over to a moderately clear space on the forest floor. “Maybe so. But there’s something else we need to take care of first.”

Kneeling, Erik slung his unconscious son down as gently as he could. “Going to need all of us to keep the lady safe, I think.”

Einarr felt an irrational stab of annoyance. If Irding hadn’t drawn his axe, they would not have been put to flight, and he had only been slowed because he had fought poorly, earlier. Frowning, he shook off such dark thoughts. “Not like none of us have ever been reckless before, right? Runa, will you see what you can do for him?”

She hummed and moved to kneel beside the injured man. With practiced motions – more practiced than he had expected, honestly – she examined his chest under the battered maille. A few minutes later, she shook her head.

“You were right. He broke a rib when the bear was tossing him around like a rag doll.” She cast an accusatory look at Erik. “If you’d been able to carry him more gently, I might be able to Sing him back into the fight, but its aggravated now. We’ll need to set it, and if we cannot let it heal naturally it will weaken him.”

Erik shook his head. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself, my boy.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. “How’s your leg?”

Erik harrumphed but said nothing. He was spared further commentary when Irding awakened with a gasp and a groan.

“Good. Ye’re awake,” Jorir grumbled. “At least now you can look after yerself.”

“Can you set the break?” Einarr thought the chances were good Irding would have to do a fair bit more than hide in a tree to look after himself once Runa began her part. Runa and Jorir both shook their heads.

“Not without bringing the wrath o’ the wood back down on our heads, I think.”

Irding sat up with a grimace and frowned down at the maille now laying on the forest floor beside him. “Surely there must be some way. A sore chest never stopped me before…”

An idea struck Einarr. “Belts. Rethread your weapons on your belts, and we’ll use our baldrics. That should help, shouldn’t it?”

Runa hesitated, thinking it over, before nodding. “It should work. Take off your shirt, Irding.”

“Quickly now. If there were wolves on our trail, we won’t know it until we’re surrounded. The sooner we’re moving, the better.”


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

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

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.9 – Bear

A roar reverberated through the trees as the creature caught the scent of humans. Its unnatural red eyes started directly at Einarr and its lip curled up in a snarl, revealing massive fangs.

Einarr slid Sinmora from her sheath. Avoiding the bear was not an option, not now that it has seen them, not with the look of madness in its eyes.

Erik and Irding moved up to flank him, their axes in hand. Good.

Runa stepped up behind them then, and the sweet soprano of her voice carried past them. It was not the fury-song, however. Instead, she sang to end the rage – not for them but for the bear.

It swayed on its feet as though drunk, Runa’s song warring with some other influence. The Woodsman’s, perhaps?

The horned creature began to look drowsy, and Einarr nudged Irding to begin circling around.

Immediately the possessed bear’s eyes snapped to follow the movement, wide awake again. The three men froze, and Runa’s song grew louder and more insistent. Einarr’s mind was clear, his body relaxed, but even his eyelids began to feel heavy.

Erik sighed loudly, replacing his axe in its loop on its belt, and rolled his shoulders back to limber them. “We don’t have time for this.”

“I don’t think so, old man.” Irding cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got this one.”

Erik opened his mouth as though to protest, but evidently thought better of it. He folded his arms as his son readied himself.

With a primal yell, Irding charged into the clearing as though into a glíma ring. The bear lowered its head, ready to toss its assailant with its massive stag horns. Irding clinched with the beast, grabbing hold by those selfsame horns. Then followed a test of strength, with each grappler attempting to throw the other.

Had Irding wrestled a stag soothed by the song magic, he might have had a chance. A bear with antlers, however, was still fundamentally a bear – song magic or no. The creature twisted its head down and Irding lost his footing. Only for a moment, but that was all it took for one massive paw to send him flying for the edge of the clearing.

Einarr nearly started forward to help, but a cry from Runa kept him from it. The foliage writhed and twisted towards her feet, and even with Jorir’s help it was all he could do to keep her free of the bramble and focused on the song.

Erik took half a step forward, but Irding was not to be defeated so easily. Already he was rising from the ground, beating the needles from his trousers as he watched the bear, waiting for an opening. When the bear stumbled again, he rushed in low.

Having failed to best the creature locked with its antlers, Irding sought to get in close for the second round. Erik’s jaw dropped as he realized what his son – correction, his idiot son – intended, but it was too late to stop him.

The bear caught Irding in a hook with its front paw and tossed him up in the air, rearing up to continue playing with its prey. When the creature had reached its full height, just before it could slam Irding back down to the ground with another swipe of its paw, Erik’s shoulder impacted with its belly.

The bear looked down, somewhat perplexed by the not-furry creature that now had its arms wrapped around the bear’s middle.

Irding tumbled to the ground, only a little more gracefully than a sack of onions.

The bear roared again, giving off the impression of a shrug, but before it could wrap its forelegs about Erik’s back the big man had slipped out from beneath the creature’s grasp.

Irding rose to his feet unsteadily, but the strange creature’s attention was still on Erik even as it fought off the effects of Runa’s song.

A note of panic was rising in Runa’s voice. Certain, now, that the other two had the creature well in hand, Einarr turned his full attention to the vines that crept around their feet. Tendrils had begun to grip the leg of his trousers, and Jorir was tearing at several that had begun to wrap about Runa’s legs. And this is when the Woodsman isn’t paying attention?

A quick yank had his feet free again, and he joined Jorir in tearing at the vines that converged on Runa. Einarr questioned, at this point, whether her singing was doing any good, but judging by her expression something was actively fighting her attempt to put the Woodsman’s servant to sleep.

The bear gave a roar, and Einarr risked another glance over at the other fight. Irding had locked its horns in the clinch again, but this time his father lay on the creature’s back in a very familiar posture to Einarr: It was much the same move he had used to knock out the fimbulvulf on Svartlauf. The bear, between the lack of air to breathe and the song designed to induce relaxation, was losing the fight to remain conscious.

With a nod, Einarr turned back to his still-singing fiancée and pursed his lips in thought. Nodding, he scooped Runa up by the waist and set her on his shoulders. Vines trailed from her skirt, but of the ordinary kind that did not writhe under their own power. He kicked his feet to keep the vines from getting a grip on his own legs and moved toward the clearing where Erik and Irding were lowering the now-unconscious bear creature to the forest floor.

Irding looked pale, and he breathed heavily, but he insisted to Einarr and Erik both that the was fine.

“If you say so…” Einarr did not bother to hide his dubiousness, but Irding waved him off again.

Before they set off into the forest again, he turned to Runa. “Keep an eye on him, would you? I suspect he’s broken something.”

Runa nodded. “Of course. But not, I think, a something the herb-witches or apothecaries would be able to do much about.”

Einarr grumbled. “Time to move on, people, before we draw any more attention to ourselves.”


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

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

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

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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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

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

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.6 – Guardians of the Forest

Einarr stumbled a little as their captors shoved him into what looked like a duelling arena, or perhaps a Thinghall – although, as with the camp fire, Einarr was puzzled what possible use forest spirits could have for such a thing. The floor was ringed with log benches polished more from use than craft, and other than the open door at his back there was only a single, guttering torch for light. In the center of the open, packed-dirt stage in the middle of the room, Jorir, Erik and Irding were just turning to look at who the newcomer might be.

“Ah, there y’are!” Jorir exclaimed.

Runa stepped up beside him, and the door behind them closed, leaving the five with only the flickering light of the nearly dead torch, and no sign of this “Auna.”

“We’re all in one place, at least.” Smiling a little, Einarr scanned the faces of his companions and saw no sign of injury there. “How did they get you three? And why were you separated from Runa?”

“Ah, well, you see…” Erik started, and even in the poor light Runa looked sheepish.

Irding picked up what Erik was plainly reluctant to say, sounding mostly annoyed. “We got out of those blasted tangle-vines, whatever they were, and started trying to follow after you. Then the Lady here spotted a second of the naked women, only this one seemed to be beckoning us on. Led us on a merry little chase – or, rather, led her on a merry chase, with us following. Only Runa kept getting farther and farther ahead, no matter how we tried to hurry, until we couldn’t see her anymore. We couldn’t exactly leave the little princess alone like that, so we started searching. Only instead of your fair lady, we found the bottom of a pit.”

Runa cleared her throat. “In my defense, I thought I heard you all behind me the entire time. Right until I ended up surrounded by huldrekall with spears.”

Einarr shook his head at the ground, stifling the growl that tried to build in his throat. “Well. We’re all here now, and I think if they wanted us dead we’ve played the fool enough we already would be. So. Did any of you manage to find out who this Woodsman is?”

Jorir nodded. “He’s the one they’re fighting for control of the forest. And based on what I’ve seen, it’s’ not going well.”

“But is he a person? Another spirit? Some sort of monster?”

The others could only shrug, and now Einarr did growl in frustration.

“If you are truly not spies for our enemy, perhaps you would be willing to prove it?” A tall woman sauntered out from the darkness, slender as an elf, her hips swaying with every step although the hair on her head was the yellow of old needles and her face was craggy like bark. The old huldra’s voice made Reki’s seem common.

Einarr elbowed Irding, who was staring. Even with Runa there, Einarr found it difficult to keep his eyes on her weathered face. “You are Auna, then? If it is within our power,” he answered. “Should we help you, however, there is certain assistance we would require.”

The old huldra raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? How very mercenary of you. How did you come to be on this island?”

Einarr outlined the last two days in short, staccato phrases, wholly unsuited for storytelling. Then again, this was not a fireside, and he did not care to regale his captor.

As he finished, Auna laughed. “At least you do not expect me to call you poor unfortunates. You’ll need more than a new mast if you want even to try to break free of this place, but I wonder if you have the stomach even for that much.”

Einarr bristled, but she allowed no opening for any of them to object.

“My people are locked in a battle for control over this forest with a dark spirit known to some as a leshy. The Woodsman, we call him, though he is no man.”

Runa shook her head when Einarr glanced her way: not a creature she was familiar with, then.

“This is a battle we are losing. Should the rå be driven from this wood, so will everyone other than the Woodsman and his dark minions – his puppets, really, as they seem to be not so much creatures as extensions of his will. My people seek harmony with the others on the island, but the Woodsman is always red in tooth and claw.”

Her… people. So the hulder were just as much flesh and blood as the elves, then? Einarr supposed that made sense, given the surprises he’d seen thus far. “So what would you have us do?”

“A spell is known to us that will impede the Woodsman’s power so long as it is in place. We would have you go into the center of it’s domain and inscribe it.”

Erik scratched at his beard. “A… spell, you say? Like, some special song?”

“I suppose one might call it a poem.” Auna trailed off then, as though hesitating. “You do all know the runes, of course?”

The men all shook their heads as Runa opened her mouth. “Only I, I fear. Is that insufficient?”

Auna shrugged. “So long as the task is done, I find I care little how you accomplish it. But the lines must be inscribed in the stone at the entrance to the Woodsman’s lair and incanted while he is absent, and I no longer have the numbers to send one of my own with you. Once that is done, though, my people can handle the rest.”

The leader of the huldra grinned, then, and it was a look that set Einarr’s hackles on end. He swallowed. “Give us the spell, then. One way or another, we’ll see it done.”


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

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

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.