Tag: Nine Noble Virtues

2.30 – Feast

For as nervous as Einarr had been about the answer to his father’s question, he felt no trepidation at all on the matter of his own.

The Oracle, too, seemed less reluctant before his question than she had before Stigander’s, spending less time than she had for anyone save Arring reviewing her materials. She turned to look expectantly at him.

“My lady Oracle, how might I best win over the father of my beloved without betraying my own family?”

She nodded: it was, more or less, the question he was sure she’d expected. With a graceful efficiency the Oracle turned to her loom and began to spin.

As the hours passed, he found he was just as perplexed as to the meaning of his weaving as to Stigander’s, though for entirely different reasons. Images abounded, but while they all connected to him they did not seem to connect to one another. One small consolation, they all appeared to require him to show his mettle and his virtue… although that may not have been as much of a consolation as it seemed.

Before he quite realized she was done, the rhythmic clacking of the shuttles quieted, and instead he heard a single muted clunk of wood on stone.

In expectation of her next demand, he said “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“No, of course not. You are yet young, even among humans.” The Oracle sighed quietly.

“There are no shortcuts, Cursebreaker.” She paused a long moment here. “Your princess’ father must be convinced that you are not the feckless wandering youth your past would suggest. Prove yourself reliable, virtuous, and valiant, and for the sake of your Father’s friendship and his daughter’s devotion he will agree.”

“Do not make the mistake of believing this easy, for life is often less clear-cut than the tests of virtue you underwent to reach this place.” She turned around to face him and stepped forward. In the next moment, she had taken his hands in hers as though she were his mother. “Truth be told, your father could have told you the same with near as much conviction. He would lack only the certainty that his friend’s opposition was neither fated nor everlasting.”

“Apologies, my lady. I did not mean to waste your time.”

“Not a waste, Cursebreaker. Your reading, and your father’s, have allowed you to see the limits of your perception, and that in itself is valuable training. Your calling has already placed a pair of tasks in front of you, both of which will wait a time. Go. Learn. Gather men to impress your princess’ father. When the time comes, you will see what you must do.”

“Thank you, Oracle.”

“That’s better. Now we should rejoin the others.”

***

If the table that night was any less lavishly appointed than the one when they arrived three days previous, it was only because the dinner guests were less hungry for mead and meat when well-rested and no mushrooms had stewed in the mead. As the evening wore on the Oracle took each of them aside separately to speak of payments.

Einarr gave a sympathetic half-smile when it was Arring’s turn. The man grew visibly tense when she called him aside, and stood a half-step farther away from her than looked quite natural. The Oracle had meant well when she declared the man should remarry… but under the circumstances it had been the exact wrong thing to say.

The apprentices moved around the table but kept quiet, leaving the Vidofnings’ conversation to flow naturally wherever it would. Tonight that was to the laying of plans, for tomorrow or the day after they would set sail once more. Sivid was going on at length about how what was needed now was men, first and foremost, when a slender elven hand fell lightly on Einarr’s shoulder.

“We must yet discuss your fee.”

“Of course, milady.”

She led him away from the table and the fire, and in the moonlight she seemed to glow. “Your request was, in truth, but a small thing. Your education, however rushed, is another matter.”

“I understand.”

“Do you? Truth be told, I would rather keep you here, perhaps for a year and a day, to serve as my apprentices do and receive proper instruction. However, I fear time is too short for that, and the Eagle would never agree. You have seen one of the demon ships?”

“Yes.” There was no better word to describe the ship that had stolen Astrid away from his father.

“If they ply the waves already, then experience shall have to teach you. I have at least set you on the path. Thus, this I will demand of you: when your firstborn child passes eight winters, you will send them to me for a year and a day, and they shall pay your debt and gain a proper education in the process.”

Einarr swallowed. “And should my firstborn not reach eight winters?”

“Then you shall send the eldest who reaches that age, although I doubt any such substitution will occur. Do you consent?”

He gave it as a credit that he only had to consider for a moment. An apprenticeship under an Elven oracle was not a chance lightly passed over. “I do.”

“Good. Oh, and do yourself a favor. Learn the runes. Contrary to your father’s opinion, they do come in handy.”

“I shall look into it, milady.”

The Oracle nodded crisply and motioned toward the table where it sounded like Sivid and Arring were arguing over whether coin or crew was most important just now. Einarr had reached the table before he realized she was no longer behind him.


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2.24 – Arring’s Vald

The platform rose eight feet in the air once the woodcutters had it built, and as sturdy as wood could make it. If Arring judged aright, there would be exactly enough room between the platform and the log for him to put his back into it.

While the woodcutters worked at moving the split out of the way, Arring took the time to plan his throw and allowed himself the luxury of a warm-up. That he could do it was never in doubt, but even for him it would be a difficult lift. Off in the distance, he thought he heard the bleating of goats and the whisper of pipes on the wind. Too far away to be in danger.

With a drawn-out crack the smaller log separated from its twin. The sound of it striking the ramp they’d built was like a giant’s drum, and it rumbled like thunder as it tumbled unevenly down toward the camp.

“Ready the sling!” Arring’s voice boomed nearly as loudly as the tree had. A flurry of movement off to the side revealed several of the woodcutters hauling on the end of a truly massive piece of canvas, easily enough for two sails. How they’d come by it, he could only begin to guess.

Arring turned his attention back to the platform ahead of him. Up he went, hand over hand on the ladder they’d brought up from camp, until his feet were planted firmly on the cross-tied beams.

A woodcutter’s voice echoed through the forest. “Sling secured!”

Arring rubbed his palms together and stepped up to the massive trunk, bending his knees as he pressed shoulder and palms against the rough bark of the log. He shuffled his feet a little, feeling out a place where he thought his boots unlikely to slip.

A goat bleated, far closer than Arring was comfortable with. He glanced down toward the road and the pasture wall but saw nothing from under the log.

Breath filled his lungs and he tensed his thighs, pushing. It did not want to move, but he felt the tell-tale shifting that gave away how it would.

He shifted, and with a groan the giant log began to rise off of the tree it had stuck in.

“Hey! Be careful!” The overseer’s voice rang out down below.

“I’ll just be a minute! One of the goats…” The light voice of a prepubescent boy answered.

Arring cursed. “Get the goat and get them out of here,” he grunted, hoping someone would hear.

His legs were nearly straight, shaking with the effort, but no-one had called the ‘all clear.’ He wasn’t about to set this log down again: either it would stay stuck in the fork, or it would roll down on its own, completely missing the protective sling and probably destroying the shrine. If it stayed stuck, odds were decent he wouldn’t budge it again. At least not today.

It felt like an eternity before the overseer called out again.

“Clear!”

Thank the gods. Arring dipped his knees into a shallow squat before giving a jump, pushing out with his hands against the trunk.

A curse rang out from one of the sling-tenders before wood struck canvas. Arring’s gaze snapped in the direction of the sound: the man had the end of the rope in one hand and a foot braced against the tree it was tied to. Arring couldn’t tell what the actual issue was, but it looked like other woodcutters were already heading to assist.

The canvas tightened. A quick glance revealed six men now straining at the edge of the canvas on the end where something had gone wrong.

Down below, back towards the camp, a boy screamed.

Arring vaulted off the platform and pushed off the falling trunk towards the source of the sound. Damn idiot kid…

The thought was angry, but what clutched at his throat was fear for the boy, fear that he wouldn’t be fast enough.

There they were. Tufts of goat hair showed where the boy’s charge had taken off through the underbrush when the tree came down. The goatherd had tried to follow, but somehow his foot was stuck under a root jutting out into the path of the log.

Arring’s strength was a gift from the gods, and he tried always to use it in accordance with that knowledge. Should this boy die, some might say it was the price he paid for stupidity, or it was bad luck. Arring knew better: it would be his fault, because without him the woodcutters would have found another way. Therefore, the young goatherd was his responsibility.

He charged screaming for where the boy lay stretched on the ground. The intervening space was a green-and-brown blur.

Another heartbeat and the boy would be crushed. With the last of his reserves, Arring stepped under the log and lowered his head, raising his hands to the level of his shoulders.

The force drove him to his knees. Bark pressed against Arring’s shoulders and palms where he knelt, panting, under the massive tree.

Silver bells carried on the wind, much as the goatherd’s pipes had earlier.

***

The five querants for the Oracle of Attilsund stood blinking in the red light of sunset at the top of a granite cliff. Einarr still felt the urge to vomit, and as he turned his head to ensure they were all still there he noted Arring picking himself up off of Father’s shoulder. The other three all seemed to have taken this last vision more or less in stride, to judge by the calm, almost placid looks they wore.

He shrugged one shoulder, forcibly trying to redirect his mind away from the revelations of the vision. He would confront Reki about the contents of his vision later, when they returned to the ship. His purpose here would not be so easily swayed, after all.

“Is everyone all right?” Stigander spoke quietly, but the words still carried over the ever-present wind at this altitude. A series of nods made its way around the group.

“Then we’d best get on. Not much light left, and the Elder warned us against camping out here.”


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2.23 – Felling the Bunyan Tree

The sound of silver bells rang in Arring’s ears just as he stepped off the ascent and into the broad meadow at the top of the cliff. He rushed to take another step forward, ending up with his chest uncomfortably close to the Captain’s elbow. Then he blinked.

When he opened his eyes again, he was in a thick forest where even the smallest trees he saw were easily as thick as Erik’s shoulders and a diffuse gray light made it hard to tell direction or distance. Off to his left, he heard the sound of axes striking timber. Must be a woodcutter’s camp nearby. With a shrug he jogged off to investigate.

After a while, the sound of men’s voices rose above the continual thock… thock… thock of chopping wood. They were shouting about something, but the voices were still so indistinct he couldn’t quite tell what. Arring picked up his pace.

As he loped around trees as big as three men, Arring caught notes of urgency in the woodcutter’s voices. He snorted and kept on. Sprinting wasn’t likely to accomplish anything other than winding him.

Finally the source of the noise came into view. No fewer than six woodcutters were clustered around a tree large enough one could carve a longship from it rather than cutting it into boards. A large ring of wood had already been chopped. Some of the wedges they removed had been stacked to the side to use as firewood that night. No matter how much he looked, though, he could not see where they intended it to land. There were only two clear spaces wide enough to accommodate that trunk. In one of them, the woodcutter’s camp was plainly visible. In the other stood a village.

Curious, Arring approached a brown-haired man who stood back, directing their progress. “Hello.”

“Marnin’. What kin I do fer ye?” The man’s accent was strange to Arring’s ears.

“I was wondering if there was something I could do for you, actually. That’s a mighty impressive log you’re aiming to fell.”

“Beauty, ain’t it?”

“Mm. But, where are you planning to put it?”

“Why, straight down that’a’way, o’course.” The woodcutter gestured toward the place Arring felt certain there was a village. “Plenty o’ room ‘fore it hits the near fields.”

“If you say so.”

“We measured as close as we can. Couldn’t get the top out, but she’ll make the squeeze.”

The two men stood in silence a moment longer, Arring trying to decide if he trusted the man’s measure, before the woodcutter spoke again. “You still want to give us a hand, we could use an extra pair of strong arms working an axe.”

Arring gave the man an oddly self-deprecating grin. “I think I just might do that.”

Felling even an ordinary tree was hard labor, but Arring enjoyed the warmth it brought to the muscles of his shoulders and arms, enjoyed the rhythm of swinging an axe against a foe that did not move.

Arring’s shoulders had begun to ache by the time the waist of the tree narrowed sufficiently that they could begin to push.

With a crack and a giant’s groan the massive tree swayed as the woodcutters clustered together and shoved. The sound of wind through the branches was like a squall.

Until it stopped, with the tree propped at an odd angle by a trunk somehow strong enough to stop its charge. When the woodcutters saw this they, too, groaned.

“How are we supposed to get this beast unstuck?” One of them complained aloud.

Arring laughed. “I guess the Norns smile on you lot. Let me have a look.”

He leapt up on the stump, rubbing his palms together, and stepped toward the wall of wood he would need to scale. The other woodcutters looked skeptical, as well they might. Even the Captain or Erik would have trouble with that jump, but while they were taller than Arring they did not have the sheer power of his muscles. Arring bent his knees and jumped for the barky ledge overhead, catching it on the first go and pulling himself up on top of the half-felled log in one fluid motion.

“Don’t worry,” he called down. “I’ll set it down gentle as a babe for ye!”

Arring jogged along the top of the log, swinging around the occasional branch that stood to bar his way, until he reached the hangup.

He pressed his lips together, evaluating his options. As massive as this tree was, the one causing them issues was still larger. Worse, the log had caught in a fork of the other tree, which was probably the only reason it caught at all.

Ordinarily, he would cut the fork, but a quick climb along each of the branches warned him against that. To the left the forest became thicker: cutting that side would only get the log stuck again. To the right, the branch would block the road and crush a shrine. Worse, there would be nothing to stop the log from rolling. The woodcutters could easily end up owing their entire season’s take from restitution alone.

Arring nodded to himself and turned around.

“It’s stuck in a fork,” he announced when he reached the cut edge of the log. “I need your best catchers, a barricade, and one massive sling.”

The overseer frowned. “Show me.”

Arring shrugged, and then they both stood on the log just before its nest. “If we split the log, the top may as well just put down fresh roots. It’ll end up vertical before it actually comes all the way down. Same problem if we send it left, although we might lose less. And, well, look to the right.”

“A shrine of Frol, and Galing’s pasture wall.” The chief woodcutter cursed. “Can’t very well drop a tree on the tree-god’s shrine.”

“Not if you hope for a long life. But if your men can rig up a ramp to catch the branch, we can toss the log into a sling and lower’er down to the ground, nice and easy.”

The woodcutter swallowed. “…Toss?”

“Hm. You’re right. I’ll need a platform, too.”

“You intend to toss this monster?”

“Assuming I can get the proper leverage. Is that a problem?”

“…No, of course not.”

“Good. Let’s get to it, then.”


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2.22 – Hall Dance

Sivid gave himself a few turns to size up the opposition before venturing in for his warmup round. The puffed-up rooster of a man who looked just about to take his leave was not likely to be much competition, but he thought he saw a few others who could put on a show. Others like him – small, wiry, quick, better at dodging than taking a blow and might just have something to prove because of it. They always made the best dancers, and he should know.

The rooster pranced out of the center after nearly botching a simple handspring to be replaced by a serious-faced young man – one of the ones Sivid thought would be a worthy opponent.

The boy put himself through a number of contortions in the center – more than Sivid would ordinarily consider for the first round. He watched and weighed: the boy had promise, but no joy. Well. Time to show him how to have some fun out there.

Sivid danced. He hadn’t intended to pull out all the stops in his first run out there… but the music and the cheers from the crowd and the glares from the rooster and the too-serious kid all egged him on and it was fun. If he judged right, he could have his pick of the ladies tonight if he wanted to.

Oops. Best let someone else have the stage for a bit. He pranced around the outside of the circle, offering a small bow to a few of the other competitors, before slipping in to a gap that opened for him – not coincidentally flanked by a pair of lovelies he might be willing to buy a drink later.

His choice of location earned him even harder glares from the rooster and the kid. Sivid quirked an eyebrow. Interesting.

He still wasn’t going to take it easy on them. If he didn’t make them fight for the attention of the girls they liked, the girls wouldn’t be properly appreciated.

Three more rounds this went on. Ordinarily he would remember every move that was made in the rounds, but tonight they were a blur. He knew they’d made him work for it, though, just like he knew he’d risen to the occasion. The purse for the hallingdanse was his, and the comely young blonds who had so graciously opened the circle for him fluttered their eyelashes his direction.

“That was a good dance, everyone. This round’s on me!” He wouldn’t actually do more than buy a drink and flirt with the women here: unlike Erik, he’d taken Lord Raen’s lesson to heart. On the other hand, openly flirting with those two women seemed like to provoke a duel he didn’t care to fight.

The rooster and the boy accepted their mugs with tight-lipped smiles, not mollified but not yet certain how best to challenge Sivid the interloper. For his part, Sivid bought the round and then directed his attention to a pert redhead, rather older than the two blonds and saucy in the game they played.

It was the rooster who first approached him, but the over-serious boy stood at his shoulder with his arms crossed. Had they… ah, the rooster was playing the fool to make his friend look good.

Sivid crossed his arms and shook his head, not bothering to hide his amusement. “It was a good hall dance, boys, let’s leave it at that.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. Dagny’s been trying to convince her father to call off her engagement with my friend here, and after what you pulled she won’t even look at him.”

“And why does Dagny want to end the engagement in the first place? Good-looking lad like him, surely it can’t be that he doesn’t know how to smile? How to enjoy himself?”

Based on the glowers coming from the younger men, he’d hit the nail on the head.

“It’s not my dancing that made this Dagny turn away from you, son. Learn to have a little fun. Relax. If you can’t even lose a simple hall dance without taking it so hard, what’s going to happen if, gods forbid, the flux takes your son?”

The boy’s face started to redden with anger. “She’d have come back to me tonight, if you hadn’t shown me up so badly.”

“I showed up everyone out there tonight. But if I hadn’t been there, she’d have turned to someone else instead. Someone who had a smile on his face and didn’t move like he’d just been buggered with a pole.”

Fire burned in the boy’s eyes now, and his face was redder than the saucy wench’s hair.

Sivid gave a mental sigh. He’d wanted to avoid a fight here, but if someone didn’t set him straight this kid was just going to make some unlucky wench miserable for the rest of their lives. “Oh, I know. You’re still blaming me. That a habit o’yours, blaming someone else when things don’t go your way?” He looked levelly at the boy for a long moment. “Try me again when you’ve grown up a little, let me enjoy my evening.”

Sivid turned back to his drink and the game of wits he’d been engaged in.

“Dice with me.”

Sivid sighed and looked back down at the table before turning his attention to the earnest brat. “No.”

“You have offered me a mortal insult. You have robbed me of my chance to win back my love. There may be truth in what you say about me, which is why I challenge you with dice rather than swords. But you will dice with me.”

Sivid’s fingers twitched. It would be the easiest thing in the world to trounce this brat with a roll of the bones… but when he won at dice bad things happened. Randomly, but without fail. “I will take any challenge other than dice, boy. You look like a hearty sort: why don’t we arm-wrestle. Then you can show off your strength to this Dagny you’re so intent on.”

“My strength has never been in question. My luck, on the other hand…”

Sivid shook his head. As much as he wanted to teach this brat a lesson… “That wouldn’t be a fair test of your luck, boy.”

“How could anything be a better test of luck?”

“Because I always know how the dice will fall, and the Norns always correct their weave. Either I give you a hollow victory, or I bring calamity on my own head.”

Silence fell in the hall.

“Go away, kid. Find some other way to impress your wench.”

Silver bells tinkled.


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2.21 – A Tune for All Seasons

Einarr furrowed his brow at Runa’s suggestion, confused. “A… tune? But Song Magic is fundamentally ephemeral.”

“Indeed.” All hint of sensuality was gone from Reki’s voice, and Einarr heard what sounded like a warning threat in her tone.

He bristled: this was his wife she used that tone with, after all.

“Song magic is utterly unsuited for such a task. I don’t know what you’re even thinking about.”

Runa looked back down at the table and took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and looked Einarr directly in the eye. “Yes. Song magic is utterly unsuited to the task I have in mind… at least as it is typically thought of. There is another layer, however. A deeper layer.”

“Such things are not worthy of you, Queen of Breidelsteinn.”

“And yet it is an option I am willing to place on the table, Master Chanter.” She turned her attention back toward Einarr, as though afraid to look away now, and swallowed hard. “Should my lord desire it of me, I am willing to perform a Tuning on the men of the Allthing which will ensure they look favorably on you and your strategy.”

“Such things are forbidden!”

“I know that well, Reki, and yet every Singer learns the practice in her apprenticeship. Such is my devotion, that I will offer the option.”

“Reki…” Einarr had to draw himself together to even ask the question. He had a feeling he was not going to like the answer. “Reki. What is a Tuning?”

“Just as a fiddle or a lyre has strings which must be tuned, so too do the souls of sentient beings. The Tuning works a profound change in the subtlest way, and it is permanent.”

Einarr rocked back on his heels. In that moment he felt as though he was drowning, and had to remind himself to breathe. He looked across the table at Runa: her lower lip trembled.

“Such a thing is possible?” It came out as a whisper, clearly audible over the silence from the rest of the room. Bend the Allthing to my will… and turn thanes to thralls? Never.

Stigander looked shaken to his core: four times married, and four times to Singers.

Runa lowered her head. “It is not permanent. Not truly.”

He almost didn’t hear her, not that her answer did anything to cool his mounting rage. “So when you said you could make me carry you away from your father… this is what you meant?” His voice crescendoed until the last word was nearly a shout. Her eyes went wide but she didn’t deny it. “Have you ever Tuned someone, Runa?”

His wife kept her head lowered and did not answer.

“Have you?”

Still nothing.

“Did you Tune me?” Can I believe her if she says no?

Still no answer.

Einarr growled. He wanted to throw something, but even had something come to hand it would have been a challenge not to throw it at her right then. Red haze danced at the edges of his vision. Soul Tuning. How could such a thing even be possible, if the gods are just?

“There will be no Tuning at the Allthing. None. And if I ever hear talk of you performing this black art, I will put you aside and send you back to your Father’s hall in disgrace.”

He felt sick, and moreso because, for just a moment before the full implications hit, he’d been tempted. The silver bells sounded anyway.

***

Sivid blinked. When he closed his eyes, he was surrounded by the open sky and the side of a mountain above the tree line. Then the sound of bells came to his ears and he sighed. Slowly, the sound of bells faded into the pounding of drums and the jaunty drone of a fiddle and the rattling of dice. When he opened his eyes again, he was in the best sort of public house.

He saw no-one drinking broodily alone or plotting with just their mates. The fiddle and drums were playing for a hallingdanse up near the front of the room, and elsewhere he saw tables full of men telling boastful stories or dicing, and from anywhere in the room he might hear a peal of laughter or a spate of cheering. Even as the grin spread across his face, though, he felt his fingers twitching.

It was a familiar itch, but one he could never quite ignore. The itch to toss the dice and win again, prove to himself that his losses were still only by choice. Let’s find a place in the dance, instead. There would be no unfortunate consequences if he took the prize on the dance floor, after all.

He sidled up to a woman on the outside with a large purse at her belt and a blackboard in hand. “Anything special has to happen for me to join?”

The brown-haired woman spared him half a glance. If she only smiled, she’d be nearly as good-looking as he was. “Entry fee is ten silvers to the pot. Winner gets half, house gets the rest.”

Sivid reached down and tested the weight of his purse. For a wonder, it seemed to be full. “Done.”

He pressed the coins into the bookie’s hand and found himself a place in the circle. The dancers here were fierce for all that their contest was all in fun.

Sivid grinned. The better the competition, the more fun he’d have.


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2.20 – The Third Trial

They finished their lunch in silence. For his part, Einarr kept turning over in his head Jorir’s revelation – the one he plainly did not wish to speak more of. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of his father’s new scrutiny, either. That ‘cursebreaker’ had the ring of a title about it. I’m not entirely certain I like the sound of that.

He found that he had little appetite left. None of the others seemed terribly interested in more food, either: another handful or two of nuts, or a dried fish, and all five of them were on their feet again.

“Well,” Einarr said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the long silence. “Lead the way.”

Jorir nodded and quick-stepped back toward the path. I should have a word with him about that… but not in front of everyone. Maybe if he could learn what the Oracle had actually told his liege-man it would clear matters up.

Einarr didn’t mind the idea of having a calling, per se. But for that calling to be cursebreaking… that was troubling. Urdr was supposed to be the exception among Weavers, after all, not the rule.

The trail entered a series of steep switchbacks up a nearly sheer granite face.

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

Einarr shuddered at the idea of the last vision hitting when a single misstep could send any of them plummeting to their doom. With every step he half expected the sound of bells to ring on the wind, heralding the final test… but with each step all he saw was the trail and the granite face beside him.

The air burned in Einarr’s lungs by the time the trail opened back out into a meadow once more. There were no trees now, and the grasses and shrubs grew low to the ground. He stepped to the side to stand in the grass and catch his breath while Stigander and Arring completed their climb and the sound of bells rang in his ears.

He blinked, and the mountainside was replaced by a large, dimly recognized room. The tapestries hanging on the stone walls were warm and properly abstract, suggesting rather than showing animals and plants, and a large and detailed sea chart was spread out on the table dominating the center of the room.

Standing with him around the table was a white-haired version of his father, Reki, Erik, Jorir… and Runa, also looking older but no less lovely for the matronly cast to her face. I can win her.

“Every last Clan of the north has suffered at the hands of the Order of the Valkyrie. Why will none of the other thanes see that together we have a chance?” Einarr heard the words coming from his own mouth, saw his own fist bang against the table. Oh. So that’s what the situation is.

“Oh, they see it,” Stigander rumbled. “But someone would have to be chosen to lead the navies. They worry more about what that someone might do with command of so many ships and warriors once the threat is eliminated than they do about the Order or the Empire.”

“They’re worried I’ll decide to name myself Althane? Are they crazy?”

“It’s been tried before,” said Jorir. “By rulers older and supposedly wiser than you.”

“Bah. We’ve only just got Breidelsteinn back under control.”

“And not quite that.” Erik crossed his arms. “A couple of the more westerly Jarls are just biding their time, methinks. A lot of trust was lost while we were all out at sea.”

“That was none of our doing, but you all see my point.”

“There’s not many outside our waters who know that, though, son, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily help us. There’s not a lot within the Allthing with quite the experience we’ve had, and they all have their own priorities to consider as well.”

“You’re right, of course, Father.” Einarr looked back down at the map and snorted. “So. I guess that means the first question is how I convince them, first, to trust me and, second, that doing away with the Valkyries is in their best interest.”

“Start with a story, my lord.” Reki’s low voice had not lost its purr in the years since she joined the Vidofnir. Einarr turned his attention to the Singer’s red eyes and waited. “Tell them, over drinks at the hall perhaps, how the Hunters nearly wiped us out while we still wandered. Tell them of the battle that lead you to swear vengeance. That alone might win you a few.”

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

“Have they? The times I’ve overheard you speaking of it, you’ve said nothing of the actual battle.”

“’At’s a good idea, Reki. Why don’t you let me handle that part: I’ve a fair bit of experience spinning yarns over drinks.”

“Thanks, Erik. I never quite know where to begin.”

The big man laughed. “That is because you didn’t do nearly enough stupid shit while we were roaming.”

Einarr and Stigander both shook their heads, each laughing under their breath.

“All right, so that’s a good place to start. What else might help?”

Jorir glared up at him like he was being stupid. “You’ve got an actual plan in place for winning this, don’t ye? Give them some inkling what it is. Ye’ll be relying on independent action in a buncha different places anyway – why not let them know that. Put their minds at ease a bit.”

“Those independent forces are still going to have to coordinate together, but if they’re not fully under the command of the central force… Father? Do you think that would actually make a difference?”

“For some, maybe. Don’t expect it to allay everyone’s suspicions, though.”

“Of course.” Einarr looked across the table: Runa was biting her lip, as though she were weighing something. “Well, my love? Do you have an idea.”

“Um. Well, there is something I could do to help. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though.” Runa glanced over at Reki, and suddenly her expression seemed less weighing and more nervous.

Reki’s attention was turned toward the map, and she didn’t seem to catch the look.

“There could be a Tune that might convince them.” Runa emphasized the word tune strangely. Reki’s head snapped up: daggers of ice seemed to shoot across the table at the other Singer.


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2.16 – Desperate Battle

One down, five to go… Four. Einarr stared through the gap in the circle where his fallen opponent had been and set his jaw. A cry of shock from the other side of Arring said his partner had felled another, but already more Valkyries rushed towards their circle. In only a moment, the two fallen would be replaced by four more. A hollow space opened up in his belly: if there were this many men to deal with the two of them, the fight was going badly all over.

Four men became eight. Einarr could spare no thought for the shallow cuts that got through his guard or for the fate of his fellows. Three times his boot nearly crushed Bardr’s nose as he dodged a blow. Three times he moved in time, but on the third he stumbled.

“Einarr!” Arring lunged, ignoring for a moment the flock of vultures trying to peck out their eyes. Einarr’s shoulder slammed into his crewmate’s back, but the man didn’t budge.

“Thanks,” he grunted. Einarr took the opportunity to lash out with a boot toward one of the Valkyries within range. He heard the satisfying snap when foot hit nose, and the sailor cursed even as blood began to flow down his face.

Such a minor thing was not enough to knock the fight out of a Valkyrie, of course. Einarr launched himself off Arring’s back with a roar. Sinmora whistled as the blade drove for the man’s skull.

He, too, had allies, though. A saber flashed, and instead of the sound of steel biting flesh it was steel striking steel that rang out.

Einarr snarled, ripping his blade back to cut thrice at the three men ahead of him. Blood bloomed on their tunics. Two of them turned a sickly green and dropped to their knees, clutching their stomachs as though to hold in their innards. The third snarled back.

Moist heat gushed from Einarr’s calf. Pain would come later. That was a deep one, but not as deep as the one the Valkyrie got in return. If he lived, he would never father another child.

Einarr’s lungs burned. Even under the full strength of Reki’s song fatigue slowed his arms and fear clutched at his throat. This was like no other battle he had seen. It seemed as though there were no end to the Valkyries, even though their hunting parties were never more than two ships together. Their assailants had ebbed, if only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, smelling sour bile and the iron tang of blood.

Arring’s voice rang out. “Behind you!”

Einarr turned. A javelin – not a crossbow bolt, a javelin – hurtled for his breast. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t feel anything. There was no time to dodge. There was no time to bring his shield or sword to bear. The fates had decreed that this moment was his time.

Einarr lowered his eyelids, accepting his fate. In the moment before they closed, Arring’s sturdy figure seemed to fly into the path of the javelin.

Einarr’s eyes flew open again when he saw what was happening. He screamed in denial.

The javelin found the weak point in Arring’s mail. Blood spurted from his back even as Einarr dashed forward to catch his crewmate… his friend. The world went red.

The next thing Einarr was aware of, he stood alone in a pile of corpses. At his feet lay Bardr and Arring, both gone. A few other lone figures remained of the Vidofnir’s crew, each surrounded by a ring mound of bodies. Jorir. Reki. Erik. One or two others… Father.

He strode to where the others gathered around Stigander, the wound in his leg somehow vanished. “Father.”

“Einarr.” The words were calm and level, but both knew the other’s heart at this moment.

“How many are left?”

“Just those you see here.”

Einarr nodded, looking down at his blood-stained boots. “Where will you take us now?”

Stigander’s voice was tired when he finally answered. “I don’t know.”

“You’re not giving up?” He lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze with a challenge.

Stigander shook his head.

“Good.”

“I’ll be damned if I know how we’re supposed to win back Raenshold with just the few of us, though. And this just cost us everything we’ve earned towards winning the hand of your bride.”

“It was always going to be a matter of wits, Father. Our birthright was stolen from us by guile, and by guile it shall be won.”

“We will still require force of arms to back up our wits, son. After this, we’ll be lucky to find enough men to crew our ship, let alone turn our cause from doom.”

“We’ll find a way. If for no other reason, Father, than the battle here today.”

Now his father looked alarmed, but Einarr did not give him the chance to interrupt.

“The Order of the Valkyrie has wronged the sons of Raen and the men of Breidelsteinn this day – grievously. And they will pay, Father.”

“They already have, Einarr. Look around you. We were outnumbered, and yet it is we who yet live.”

“Are you really all right with that, Father?”

“Even our entire clan does not have the resources to go after the Order of the Valkyrie. Others have tried, and wiped themselves from the map in the process.”

“Then we shall gather other clans to our cause.”

“You realize they’ve an agreement with the Empire, right?”

“So be it. The Vidofnir is my home, and her crew my family. I will not allow this to stand.” He heard the coldness in his own voice as the words left his mouth. He had never experienced rage as a cold thing before, but in this moment it was right. The Order of the Valkyries, and by extension the Empire, would not rest until every Clan was wiped out – their hunters today showed that well enough. If defending his kin meant taking the battle to them, then so be it.

“I swear before all of you, by steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, that our kin shall be avenged, even if it takes my whole life to do it.”

He stood there, staring, for a long moment before he realized that his father was frozen rather than speechless. The sound of silver bells drifted to his ears on the wind from out of nowhere.


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2.15 – The Second Trial

Einarr rounded a corner in the track he had blindly followed toward the well and breathed a sigh of relief to see his companions there. In terrain such as this, you might not have to fail a test to become hopelessly lost. Stigander and Arring were blinking back out of the dream, confusion turning to understanding and determination.

Jorir stepped back onto the path from the other direction. Whatever his trial had been, he still wore the pain of it on his face.

Einarr caught his liege man’s eye and quirked an eyebrow, but the dwarf only shook his head, slowly, in response.

Now Sivid was blinking back to consciousness. The skinny man swallowed hard, his mouth twisted into a rictus, but in no more than the time it had taken the rest of them to realize their circumstances he had schooled his face again.

“The Oracle doesn’t take kindly to people sharing their trials together,” Jorir stated before anyone could broach the subject. His voice was husky. “Your vision will have been drawn from your own experiences, but it may contain glimpses of things to come… or that have already come to pass.”

“We should continue.” Stigander’s voice rumbled. He, too, looked unhappy at what he had seen, but had more of determination about it than the dwarf.

“Yes, Father.” What did they see? For his part, Einarr had known what sort of man Jarl Hroaldr was, and so his vision had not troubled him unduly. Seeing the reactions of his companions, however, he worried a little about how the other two trials would be.

The path to the Weaver’s Palace continued to wind its way upward, through the ever-sparser forest and into alpine meadows, surpassing even Svartlauf in wildness. They were wild, but Einarr felt no menace in these fields. He would have been hard pressed to say how much of that related to the knowledge that no jotün prowled this island.

As the morning wore on towards noon the clouds dispersed and the wildflowers growing to either side of the path almost seemed to glow in the newfound sunlight. Jorir growled at them not to relax too much here, as the second trial could begin at any time now, but otherwise they walked in silence. The further they climbed, the harsher the path became.

A haze seemed to settle around Einarr’s thoughts. Two steps later, he found himself on the deck of a ship – not the Vidofnir. His first impression was of a dromon: looking about himself, he saw the all-too-familiar wing and spear.

That was the moment when he realized he already wielded Sinmora, and the weight of his hauberk dragged on his shoulders. His shield appeared to be lost, but now Reki’s voice lured him into battle although the Singer was nowhere to be seen.

To his left, Jorir and Erik fought back-to-back and Einarr chuckled to see the smallest member of the crew defending for the one of the largest. To his right was another matter.

A circle of Valkyries had formed around sturdy, staid Arring and looked set to overwhelm him. Having seen that, there was only one thing for Einarr to do: he dashed the half-dozen steps that would bring him to the outside of their circle.

Einarr swung. The light glinted off Sinmora’s blade, and he cut a wide gash across the Valkyrie’s back. To his credit, the man did not cry out, but he did give way as Einarr drove himself like a wedge through their encirclement to join his crewmate at the center.

It was only after he’d broken through that he saw Arring stood guard over the fallen body of Bardr. His crewman must have seen shock in his eyes, because the man’s nod seemed to carry ‘he’s alive’ along with his thanks for the assist. He scooped up their Mate’s shield and stood back-to-back with the other man. Two against six was somewhat better odds than he’d had before, even if his help was the one man onboard who could not be allowed to die. Maybe I am too reckless?

He had no more time for thought. A pair of sabers cut towards Einarr in the same breath. He slammed his shield out to catch the one on his left with a satisfying thud, but then he had only one hand to put behind his longsword parry.

Einarr had no focus for anything but the onslaught of blades. Reki’s song drew him ever deeper into the battle-fury – it was strange, though, and oddly wonderful, to realize that he had all the strength of her song and yet retained all of his faculties. The Valkyries pressed the two of them hard, and with Bardr down between them Einarr had little room to maneuver.

He lashed out with Sinmora at one of the three harrying him. The man looked stunned for an instant as he withdrew the blade and blood welled from beneath his chin. A strangling noise escaped his mouth and the Valkyrie fell. One down, five to go…


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2.12 – Faithless Hospitality

The tinkling sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears. Testing the fidelity of my love for Runa? Nothing simpler… surely that can’t be it, though? Well, no matter. He hefted the sack of treasure slung over his shoulder so the weight rested more comfortably and the coins tinkled again. Walking along the path up towards Kjell Hall, he whistled a jaunty tune. Jorir was only a pace behind him with another sack of treasure, and over this last quest they had filled out the crew of the Hvalaskurdr. His longship Hvalaskurdr. He had a ship. He had a crew. He had brought more gifts than even Jarl Hroaldr could have thought to ask for. If that wasn’t sufficient, even yet lacking a hall of his own, Einarr could rightly accuse the man of faithlessness.

Einarr stepped through the tree line and into the meadow. Not another quarter-mile in, the gate of the palisade around the hall stood open for them. The crew of the Vidofnir awaited inside, with the Kjellings, for news of his success. A broad grin split his wide moustache and he strode on, stopping just two steps outside the door.

“Hail to the Jarl of Kjell! Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, has returned from his quest!”

“Hail, and well-met!” The Jarl’s voice carried out of the hall nearly as cheerfully as it had for Stigander just after their encounter with the Grendel. “The son of Stigander is welcome to my hall!”

Einarr stepped across the threshold and into the shadow of the hall. He reached up to remove his knit cap – when did I put that on? – as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The smells of meat and mead filled his nose, and rowdy calls of greeting and good cheer assaulted his ears. Stigander stepped up in front of him and clapped him on the shoulders, grinning behind his yellow beard.

“We carried word ahead of you, my boy, since you had someone to retrieve. Everyone’s dying to hear it from your own lips, though.”

He returned his father’s smile in kind, certain that Stigander saw the warmth of his affection behind it. Soon, very soon, they would find a way to reclaim their birthright, and then Stigander could be the thane they all knew he should have been.

The Jarl’s voice rose above the crowd. “Come! Show us the proof of your valor!”

“Well, go on.” Stigander took his cap from him and offered a wordless nod of appreciation to the dwarf.

All eyes – Vidofning and Kjelling alike – were on Einarr and his liege-man as they strode the length of the hall towards the clearing in front of Jarl Hroaldr’s seat.

The light shifted, and Einarr caught a glimpse of Runa, sitting with her lady’s maid in the corner. It was strange: Einarr had thought the maid was a mousey little brown-haired woman, but today the one who attended his love had elfin grace and ridiculously long gold hair – fairer, if it were possible, than Runa’s. He took in so much with a glance before his eye was drawn back to the princess. She sat with her hands pressed against the seat and her shoulders thrust forward, looking up at him furtively from under lowered brows. When she met his gaze, she bit her lower lip. His heart began to race. My lady…

The Jarl cleared his throat: evidently Einarr had been staring. Abashed, he knelt before his father’s friend and set the sack down in front of him with a clatter of precious metal.

“My lord Jarl, I have returned under my own sail and with my own crew, bearing gold and treasure in accordance with the tasks you have placed upon me.” He opened the sack and reached down in among the silver and gold and jewels, looking for the artifact he knew the Jarl would want. There it is. He reached both hands down into the treasure sack and carefully began to remove the goblet.

“In token of these accomplishments, I offer you the Fierbinte, taken from the Imperial city of Krasimirburg during our raids.” He raised the goblet by its stem, resting its base on his other hand to keep it steady. The cup was solid gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires over every inch of the outside. Inside, it was perpetually filled with a blood-red wine that never seemed to spill. “According to the Imperials we questioned, it is said that the one who drinks from the Fierbinte shall know neither disease nor the progress of time for a full turning of the seasons, but that the god of war shall be their constant companion.”

Jarl Hroaldr reached out to cup the goblet’s basin with both hands and lifted it overhead. A cheer rose up around the hall from the Kjellings: the Vidofnings, Einarr was certain, wanted no part of such a thing. Not until they reclaimed their home.

Once the cheering had died down, the Jarl turned and set the goblet carefully on the table as though it were capable of spilling. His attention returned to Einarr. “Rise, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen. Your dedication is most admirable, and so I am willing to overlook that you have not gained a hall. Rise, and take the hand of Runa, and make Kjell your home henceforward. My Thane, Lord Hragnar, sails for Kjell even as we speak to take your oath to him and this land.”

The hall fell silent. To Einarr, the sudden stillness felt as though the world were crashing around his ears. His face felt slack. “I… what?”

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a Jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My Lord, surely you jest?”


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2.11 – The First Trial

Morning in Attilsund was marked not by the sun climbing over the tops of the pines but by a gradual lightening from black to grey of the cloud cover that had not yet broken. Einarr awoke groggy after a night filled with restless dreams, that all seemed to end with the realization he was being watched. He stomped into his boots anyway, warming his toes a little in the process, and hoisted his baldric over his shoulder as he joined his father and Jorir near the edge of the green.

His father’s eyes were just as dark as his own felt, although the dwarf appeared to be in high spirits. He nodded to both of them as he stepped up. “Morning.”

“Good morning!” Amusement twinkled in Jorir’s eye – or at least, Einarr thought it looked like amusement. He didn’t see what was so funny, though.

“Einarr,” Stigander drawled. “Once Sivid and Arring get here, we should go.”

“Mm.” Einarr looked over his shoulder toward their camp. “I’m sure they won’t be long.”

“They’re not here soon, I’m leaving without them.”

Einarr hummed and changed the subject. “So did anyone else feel like they were being watched all last night?”

Stigander nodded and crossed his arms. Jorir smirked.

Sivid and Arring trudged up behind them, looking like they slept even less well than the other men had.

“There you are.” Stigander lowered his arms. “Let’s get going. If we have a chance to make it to this Weaver’s Palace before dark, I’d rather.”

“That,” Jorir said, “is entirely up to you lot. I’ll guide you as best I can, but there’s magic involved in finding her.”

Einarr nodded. “Shall we be off, then?”

A nod moved around their group like a wave, and the five men set off up the forest path, toward the towering mountain in the east.

***

The trail, such as it was, meandered through the old-growth pines to the east. He saw no sign of the sea, but Einarr thought they must have walked far enough to approach the coast before their path began to wend upwards. He might not have realized the change at all save for the rock ridge bordering the trail on one side that faded away as they continued. Not long thereafter he began to feel the incline in his thighs and the forest grew thinner.

Here and there rock would jut forth from the forest floor, and these grew more frequent as the landing party ascended into the alpine meadows. Some of them, Einarr noted, were carved to resemble the head of a wizened elder or a crone. Alone of all of them, Jorir paid the standing stones no mind.

Midmorning drew near, and the steep trail had winded all of them. Where earlier there had been some scattered conversation, now Einarr at least was focused on taking one step after another up the side of the mountain and around each of the numerous switchbacks. The sound of flowing water reached his ears: he looked up, casting about for its source.

A little ways off to the side of the trail stood a well carved of rough-hewn stone. The water flowed down from the mouth of a face someone had carved in the rock down into a basin below, and sunlight glinted off the water in the basin. The stone between the face and the basin seemed to glow in the reflected light. “Father, there is water. We should draw.”

Einarr did not wait for an answer, nor did he notice when no answer came as he stepped off the path toward the well and its offered respite. As he came closer, he saw that there was someone already at the well, hidden by a tree from the path. Her hair, long enough that the ends brushed against the earth, was the color of spun gold, and her skin as pale and fair as the twinflower. She trailed slender fingers in the water, careful not to dip the sleeve of her silver-white gown. Einarr stood, stunned by the sight. A whisper of surprise flitted across his mind that there would be anyone else on the mountain here.

He must have made a noise, because she looked up and smiled at him, not at all surprised for her part. Her high cheekbones and delicate ears lent an elfin grace to her face.

“I beg your pardon, my lady. I did not mean to disturb you.”

She laughed, a sound like the tinkling of silver bells. “I am not disturbed at all! Come, join me. The water is sweet, and the trail is yet long.”

“…Yes. I cannot stay long, but a few moments’ respite will be welcome.”

She smiled again and patted the stone in front of her knees. The smile was warm and welcoming, and yet Einarr thought she did not look happy. He joined her at the well and knelt to cup water with his hands and drink. Once his mouth was wet he looked over at his unexpected companion. “Is something the matter, my lady?”

“Of course not! The day is fine, the water is cool, and the company is charming.”

“As you say.” He turned now to sit on the lip of the well opposite her. It felt as though a shadow fell on the space he left between their knees, but it would be improper to sit nearer.

“You have come to see the Oracle?” She ventured.

“Isn’t that what brings most people up this way?”

“Yes,” she sighed, and her shoulders slumped.

“What troubles you, lady?”

“Only that it is a long and lonely life here on the mountain. I should dearly love the company of a strong young man such as yourself.” She looked at him sidelong and bit at her lower lip. The gesture was shy, but he saw none of that in her bearing. Einarr shook his head.

“Alas, dear lady, you will have to continue to hope. There is no denying your beauty, but my heart belongs to another.”

“Ah, no!” The sound was small, but unmistakably a wail. “Cruel fate indeed. As soon as I laid eyes on you, I thought to myself ‘here is a good man’ and set my heart on you. Can you not allow me just this morning to enjoy, even if that is all it can ever be?”

“I am sorry, lady. That would be unfair to my Runa, and cruel to yourself besides.” He stood, brushing the dust from his trousers. “I must be rejoining my friends. I am sorry to have disturbed you.”

As Einarr walked back toward the path he heard the tinkling of silver bells again.


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