Tag: Matron

7.4 – Farewells

With some reluctance, the Matrons of the Conclave invited in the alfr calling himself ‘friend’ to sit in their hall and discuss the matter. They were very specific as to the terms of the invitation – so much so that Einarr questioned Saetild’s assertion that he was merely a good-natured pest.

There was a comfortable rug spread on the floor near the hearth, where on cold winter evenings Einarr could imagine the old Matrons gathering to work their nalbinding and discuss business. Only one of these was happening that afternoon, with the golden-haired alfr standing in the middle of the plush fur and addressing the rest of them.

“Some time ago, I visited a village on an isle far to the west of here. I’ll not bore you with all the gory details of my trip, but I learned while I was there that many of the best elven rune-smiths had learned their craft there. It would be intensive training, but they might just be able to get you a basic working knowledge by the end of the summer.”

Einarr drew his brows down. “That takes me away from the Vidofnir for longer than I like…”

Some of the Matrons snorted, as though repressing laughter.

“My dear boy, some of the most brilliant alfish minds have taken years—”

Einarr held up a hand and shook his head. “I know, I know. The cost of learning is time.”

“On the subject of costs,” broke in the Matron who always reminded Einarr of an oak tree. “What price do they demand?”

“Hard labor, for the term of Einarr’s stay in the Shrouded Village.”

The oaken Matron drew down her brows now. “And what price do you ask?”

Ystävä smiled beatifically. “Oh, I am only too happy to help. You see, the favor he owes me requires the recovery of the Örlögnir, but will be greatly aided by a working knowledge of runes.”

To a woman the Matrons looked skeptical.

Ystävä went on, blithely unconcerned. “Besides, in this case the village elder will be paying me a finder’s fee. They have fewer pupils now than they’re used to.”

Einarr’s laugh came out like a bark. He was surprised to hear Saetild’s musical laugh join in.

“Perhaps you aren’t the mercenary I took you for after all,” she chuckled.

“I am exactly as I have always called myself.” The alfr didn’t quite manage to look offended, although he put on a good show of it.

“Be that as it may,” Einarr said, breaking in. “I’ve no objection to working for my supper, and on the whole this sounds like my best option. Only… how am I supposed to find this place, with only the name of a village to go by? And how do I rejoin my ship again at the end of it?”

“Well that, my boy, is the easy part. I am presuming, however, that you have arrangements to make before I whisk you off into parts unknown for the next few months.”

***

Two days later, at dawn, all was in readiness. Stigander, Jorir, and Runa hiked out to the edge of the Whispering Wood with Einarr to see him off. It was a cool morning, and streaks of cloud scudded across the lightening sky as they neared the waypoint.

“You’re sure I can’t convince you to keep on with us?” Stigander’s voice said he knew the answer to that question, but his pride required him to ask one more time anyway.

“You know I have to do this, Father. So many times since we left Attilsund, where the Oracle herself lamented my ignorance, I’ve run up against issues I needed runelore to solve. I’m not always going to have Reki or Runa to save me, after all. Besides, what the Vidofnir needs is to rebuild her crew and get some nice, healthy hauls, not be dragged into whatever weirdness my Calling manages to find next. I’ll meet up with you in the fall, at Kjell.”

Stigander nodded and clapped his son on the shoulder. They stood there a moment before Stigander threw reserve to the wind and embraced his son. “Be careful out there.”

“I will, Father. I’m looking forward to meeting the new crew when I come back.” He took a step back as Stigander’s arms loosened about his shoulders and turned his attention to Jorir.

“Are ye sure ye’d rather not have me along?”

Einarr laughed. “Would that I could. Even if Ystävä could take us both, though, and he was adamant he couldn’t, there’s something I need you to do for me.”

“Is it about that lad Arkja?”

Einarr nodded. “I’d planned on taking the summer to test his mettle, but obviously I can’t now. So I need you, and Vali if he doesn’t suddenly appear under my feet again, to make sure he’s someone I can take into my service without worry.”

“I would even if you hadn’t asked.”

“Thank you.” He thrust out his hand to the dwarf, who clasped it in a hearty handshake.

That only left Runa, who stood back a little from the others, looking half worried and half proud. He smiled at her. “Runa. Of all the faces I shall miss, yours looms largest.”

She nodded, then rushed forward to fling herself into his arms, and he held her close, inhaling her scent. “This is a wonderful thing you do,” she said into his chest. “Only, return to me safe when the season is over.”

“I will,” he murmured. “I will.” They’d had this exact conversation the night before, truth be told, but Einarr would not begrudge Runa another minute, or the one after that.

A throat cleared from behind him, towards the edge of the Wood. “This is all very touching,” Ystävä said. “But I’m afraid we must be going.”

Reluctantly Einarr lowered his arms, and reluctantly Runa stepped away from him. He shouldered his sack of belongings and turned to face the alfr. “I am ready.”


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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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7.1 – Reunion

It was unlikely that the public hall in East Port had seen a celebration of this magnitude in the whole of its existence.

After the purification ritual, Stigander and Bollinn agreed that some sort of relaxation was in order. The Matrons, unexpectedly, agreed and, what’s more, declared that they would host the feast. Perhaps it was simple relief at no longer having the sword of the black-blooded monsters hanging over the island, but Einarr suspected their jubilance had more to do with the knowledge Runa had brought back.

After the toasts and the speeches had been made – or at least the first round of them – Einarr led Arkja and four of his men over to where Stigander sat conversing with Tyr and Bollinn.

“Father.”

“Son. You did good work out there.”

Einarr shrugged. He’d accomplished his task, sure, but if it weren’t for him they’d have been back a lot sooner, too. “Father, in exchange for their help getting off the island, I told these men I might be able to get them a berth on the Vidofnir.”

Stigander turned fully to face the group. Arkja stood flanked by Hàkon, Saergar, Rig and Oskar. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of Vali leaning ostentatiously against the wall.

“We’re mighty low on crew, certainly. Been a rough season. Any of you men gone raiding before?”

Two of the five stepped forward – Arkja, and Saergar.

“For farmers, the others came by their sea legs easily,” Einarr put in.

Stigander harrumphed. “And they know what sort of a boat this is?”

“They’ve heard the Lay, Father, and some of what’s happened this past year.”

Stigander hummed now, studying the five for a long moment. “Gods know we need men. Come to the docks in the morning. I’ll put you to the test.”

Hàkon, Oskar and Rig tugged at their forelocks and said they would. Saergar, answered as a true sailor: “Aye, sir.”

That left Arkja, who stood clenching and unclenching his fist as though locked in indecision. “My lords, there is one other thing.”

Stigander and Einarr both raised an eyebrow at this.

“It’s been on my mind since the cave on the island, y’see…” He turned to face Einarr square. “I would swear to you, lord, if you’ll have me.”

Einarr blinked, more than a little taken aback. His father looked as though he was torn between amusement and taking offense.

Movement in the periphery caught Einarr’s attention: Vali had started upright from his position against the wall and was shaking his head. There is a certain strain of cowardice, he had said, that is reckless as regards himself, but craven where others are concerned.

Einarr smiled warmly at Arkja. “It’s a bit awkward, having men sworn to me when I’m still serving on my father’s ship. I know, there’s Jorir, but that was a special circumstance.”

“We do, however, have a second ship under commission,” Stigander rumbled. “I expect it to be ready for next season.”

“My thought exactly, Father. So, to avoid any more confusion, why don’t we wait until we’ve claimed my ship?” That would give them the rest of the season to prove the man, at least.

Arkja stiffened momentarily, but then his shoulders relaxed again. “Of course, my lords. That does, indeed, make good sense.”

He lowered his head to them and wandered off, not looking entirely mollified, Einarr shrugged and turned his attention back to Stigander and the others.

“Well played,” his father murmured. “You have questions regarding that one’s character?”

“A few. Something Vali said before we sailed stuck with me.”

“But he’ll not be an issue for me?”

“I don’t think so. He’s eager to prove himself.”

Stigander hummed. Arkja would probably be watched, aboard, but Einarr thought he would have no trouble getting there. “At any rate. We three were just discussion this Vali you brought back…”

“Yes, what about him?”

“Is he really…?”

“A ghost? So far as I can tell, yes.”

“Then how…?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. He’s bound, somehow, to that Imperial jar that’s been following me around since the incident with the Althane.”

“But a jar can’t move!”

“So you’d think. You have no idea, though, how many times I threw that one away, only to have it reappear in the most improbable places. Saved Runa, though, this last time.” Einarr motioned for Vali to join them. As the ghost appeared to saunter over from his place against the wall, Einarr continued. “Apparently I triggered something when I picked the jar up in the ship-barrow, so until I either die or otherwise break that connection Vali and I are stuck together. At least, that’s how Runa explained it.”

No sooner had Vali crossed the distance to join them, curiosity writ large on his earnest face, than Tyr and Bollinn engaged him directly. Perhaps because they saw the other figures coming up behind Stigander.

“Runa tells us,” came a wizened old woman’s voice. “That you wish to learn the runes.”

Stigander gave his son a sharp look.

Einarr scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. “Ah, yes, you see… Father, I think I need to. Just in order to survive. If Runa hadn’t insisted on coming along, I don’t think we’d have made it.”

Stigander harrumphed and crossed his arms.

“The boy is right,” croaked the Matron. “And he is wise to seek aid.” She paused here, long enough for Stigander to start to relax and Einarr to straighten.

“And yet,” she went on. “One of our prentice Singers is hardly an appropriate teacher. Oh, I’ve no doubt the girl has tried -” she held up a hand to shush Einarr before he could interrupt. “But even her knowledge is yet shallow. Come with us on the morrow, and we will discover a more suitable teacher for you.”

“Thank you, Lady. So long as my father does not object, I shall take you up on your offer.”

Stigander waved a dismissive hand. “Fine.”


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