Tag: mysterious elf

7.6 – The Shrouded Village

The light had dimmed from its lustrous gold by the time Ystävä led Einarr out of the trackless wood and onto a broad path – broad enough that a wagon could be driven down it at need, if barely. The sky had turned the white of early dusk, and from the trees about them he could hear the calls of birds setlting in for the night.

“Nearly there,” Ystävä muttered as he strode off south along the trail. Needlessly, Einarr thought. Within a hundred paces he could smell the tang of wood smoke and hear the sounds of village life. Not many paces further on, Einarr caught sight of buildings.

It was, somehow, not in the slightest what Einarr expected and exactly what it had to be. There were no spiralling towers, or even any true stone. The village reminded him a bit of the freehold where he stayed with Grimhildr’s parents as a youth. Walls of treated timber, rooved with thatch or shakes or, if the inhabitant was truly well-off, tile. Inside, the floors would be covered in fresh, or at least fresh-ish, rushes.

Einarr smiled. He remembered those few summers, before he was given Sinmora, fondly. If this was that sort of place, he thought he would do well.

His guide was already striding deeper into the village – heading, it appeared, to the largest of the buildings with a tile roof. Einarr hurried to once more close the gap between them.

Those few people he still saw out and about looked more like farmers than rune masters, but with the appearance of the village that fit. Still, though, he wondered. “If these alfs are all rune masters,” he murmured when he caught up to Ystävä. “Why does there not seem to be any magic in the village?”

Why they were on Midgardr and not Alfheim was another question, but not one he wanted to ask just then.

Ystävä smiled cryptically. “You’ll see.”

Then they stopped, the tile-roofed home before them, light spilling out from under the shutters. Ystävä rapped lightly on the door and stood back.

The deep baritone that sounded from within was unmistakeably annoyed. “Whoever you are,” he said. “You’d best have an excelent reason for interrupting my supper!”

Ystävä smiled, amused (although Einarr was not certain what could be amusing). “How about a new student, Elder Melja?”

The door burst open before them. Filling the open doorway, framed by the welcoming glow of candlelight, stood an alfr man with the golden hair and upswept features one expects of his race. If it were not for those, Einarr might have thought he was looking at a particularly well-formed human man: he towered over the two of them, broad-shouldered and clean-shaven.

“There you are, you old dog! I’d begun to think the human had gotten cold feet!”

“No, no. You know how chancy the High Road can be, though.”

The village elder laughed. “Too true. Come in, come in. You’ll be resting the night, I trust?”

As they followed Melja into the warmly lit room, Ystävä bowed his head as though to demure. “I’d hate to impose.”

“Nonsense! Stay, rest, visit your mysterious lady in the morning. The High Road is no place to be at night.”

Ystävä gave that small, amused smile again and said “If you insist.”

Inside, the home was as simple as Einarr expected, and as welcoming. A woman, as slight as the Elder was large, ladled the night’s meal into a pair of bowls. The smell of fresh bread tickled his nose, and he felt his cheeks color in embarrasment when his stomach had the audacity to rumble loudly.

The Elder laughed, not unkindly. “I imagine you’ve not eaten all day, have you?”

Einarr shook his head: they had not stopped more than a moment during the day’s travel.

“I beg your pardon,” Ystävä said. “Allow me to introduce Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, scion of Breidelstein and Cursebreaker, so named by the Oracle at Attilsund.”

“Welcome, young Cursebreaker. Sit, eat, and we will speak once the edge has come off your hunger. Are their places set, my love?”

“Aye, ready and cooling while you lot flap your jaws. Sit! Eat! Be welcome in our home.” The woman’s voice was pleasant, if aged in a way her husband’s was not.

Einarr’s family was half an ocean, give or take, away, and yet this first meal in an unknown village was one of the most pleasant he had experienced in recent memory. No doom-seeking axe now hung over his neck. Melja, with Mira his wife, welcomed him into their home as though he were a long-lost son, and over the course of their conversation he learned that he was neither the first nor the fifth human they had instructed in the course of their long alfish lives. They made him so comfortable, in this short stretch of time, that the question he had not wanted to ask earlier came unbidden to his lips.

“So why is the Shrouded Village on Midgardr?”

Melja paused a long moment, looking more sober than Einarr had yet seen him. “That is a long story, which will be better explained over the course of your training. You are road-weary tonight: there will be plenty of time to explore these mysteries later.”

Einarr inclined his head, not entirely satisfied. Still, a promise of more to come would do, for now.

Since the topic had turned, however obliquely, to training, Melja explained how the next several weeks were going to go. Einarr would rise with the sun and assist with chores in the mundane way. There was always wood to be chopped and chickens to be fed, after all. Then, after breakfast, he would learn the form and reading and nuance of a single rune, and in the afternoon put that rune to practical use. What was meant, exactly, by practical use Melja did not explain, but Einarr was satisfied. That night he slept soundly under the roof of his new tutors.


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7.5 – The High Road

Their farewells said, with a smile and a wave Einarr turned away from his family to face Ystävä and the Whispering Wood and they started off down the trail.

The alfr offered no conversation, but Einarr was content to enjoy the cool summer morning in quiet. They passed into the shade of the forest, and then from the well-trod path to the Conclave into a thicker, less tame portion of the wood.

Ystävä’s voice shattered the silence. “Be very careful to stick with me, now. The High Roads are treacherous for alfs, let alone men, and if you beome lost it will be nigh impossible to find you again.”

“I understand.”

Satisfied, the alfr spoke some words in a lilting language that Einarr could not place and made a parting motion with his hands. He did not slacken his pace, though, and as Einarr followed him the forest took on an otherworldly feel. The colors grew brighter, and the shadows deeper.

“This is where you trapped me when you gave me that weird broach!”

“Runestone.”

“Whatever.”

“Yes, sort of. We were… I guess you would say halfway between the realms at that point. It was the easiest way to ensure you didn’t fall out of Midgardr’s time.”

“Ah.” Then it hit him. “Wait, those little broaches were runestones?”

“They were. Fairly simple and prosaic ones, to be sure, but runestones nonetheless. What else would Wotan use as a key?”

Einarr grunted. It was a fair point, although he felt somewhat cheated that he had held something imbued with the essence of the gods and not even known it.

“Watch your step now.”

The warning was well-taken. As Einarr followed after his guide, the underbrush seemed to reach out, grasping for his leg even as the earth itself shifted under his forewrad leg. Even with the warning he was nearly knocked flat on his face. “There are no leshen in these parts, are there?”

“Leshen? I’m afraid I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Probably not, then. By way of conversation, he told the alfr of the one they’d fought on the Isle.

At the end of the tale, Ystävä gave a small shudder. “That, I think, is a creature that we may be better off forgetting.”

“Certainly I would rather not encounter another. …For how long will we be on foot? Should we not be coming to a shore before long?”

The alfr laughed. “My dear boy! I told you, did I not, that we travel on one of the High Roads of Ljosalfheimr? We need nothing so crude as a ship. We ahve already crossed several shores, with no more difficulty than stepping over a stream.”

Startled, Einarr looked down at his feet, then behind him. Sure enough, the path that stretched unnaturally straight behind him was crossed by a handful of streams, and probably by more that had fallen out of sight. He turned his attention forward again and found he had to run to catch up.

“Please don’t fall behind. My intention is to deliver you by nightfall, but I cannot do that if you fall from the path.”

“Er, of course… fall from the path?”

“Traveling the High Roads is an exercise of will and focus. That’s why its so dangerous for Midgardians.”

“I… see,” Einarr said, reasonably sure that he did as he hurried after the suspiciously helpful alfr.


The sun was setting when Ystävä once more warned Einarr to watch his step. This time it was as though his back foot were caught in a fast current, even as his front foot stopped cold. He still couldn’t see any difference in the path they walked – anything that might distinguish where the High Road began or ended. Einarr suppposed it didn’t matter: convenient as it was, he was unlikely to travel this way more than once more in his life, and that to return to Kjell in the fall.

Now that they had paused, though, he had a moment to actually take in his surroundings. The deep golden light of sunset illumined the fluttering leaves of the beech and ash that surrounded them so that they seemed to glow, and even the underbrush seemed strangely vibrant in the fading light. Einarr blinked, staring, as Ystävä stretched tired muscles.

“We’re not still in Ljosalfheimr, are we?”

“Absolutely not. Keeping a mortal on the High Road at night may as well be asking him to disappear.”

Einarr gave a low whistle. “This island, then… wherever we are, it’s amazing.”

“Elder Melja will be glad to hear that.”

“So, we’ve made it, then?”

“We’re in the vicinity. Travel by the High Roads is not a precise art. Come on, then. With a little luck, I’ll have you there by nightfall as I promised.”

For all Ystävä’s claim that he wasn’t sure exactly where the village lay in relation to them, he set out with a quick confidence through the beech grove to the west, where he could now and then glimpse the darker green of conifers. Thin, soft grasses waved gently in the breeze at Einarr’s feet, and he could see no sign of a marsh other than the grove itself. As pleasant as it was to walk through, this must have been a dry summer on the island. Occasionally a hare would dart across their path, or he would spot a deer farther back from what resolved into a path grazing unconcernedly on the rich grass.

This had to be the most peaceful place Einarr had ever visited. The Rune masters in the village must have something to do with it, for it felt carefully tended, almost garden-like, rather than merely wild. Despite the long day’s walk, Einarr felt a spring coming back into his step. Here, he would learn. And here, the island itself seemed to promise, he, too, would gain a respite from the demands of his unwanted Calling.


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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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2.14 – Heart of a Dwarf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einarr.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

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

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

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

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

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

Silence filled the meadow.

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

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

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

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


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