Tag: Nothing like an impossible quest to get the blood flowing in the morning

6.7 – A Nearly Peaceful Night

Auna left them in the meeting hall under heavy guard after giving Runa the lines she would have to inscribe. She, then, wandered off into a corner of the room, muttering under her breath. From the cadence, it sounded as though she were practicing. There had been nothing to write the spell in, after all, save perhaps the dirt of the floor – and under the circumstances that would be dangerous.

Irding let out a long, heavy sigh and lay back on one of the benches in the room, his hands folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Erik folded his legs under him where he stood and pulled out his axe and whetstone. The blade was still dulled from the fight against the stenjätte, but he had ceased to grumble about it more than a week ago. Jorir likewise sat, but he began with a careful inspection of the chains of his maille. Einarr knew he should do the same, but restlessness seized his legs. He paced.

Occasionally he would catch one of the others looking at him, but there was no point explaining himself. He wasn’t even sure he understood why he could not sit still. After a while, when there was still a little light filtering in from around the door, Runa followed a scowl (for distracting her) by beckoning him over. The sound of his boots scraping against the dirt paused long enough for her to pat the ground next to where she sat.

Einarr folded his legs under him to sit next to his beloved. “What can I help with?”

“That is actually exactly what I was about to ask you. You’ve been worrying over something for ages now. Talk to me?”

“I-” he started to deny it, but stopped himself. He couldn’t do that – not with Runa. He laughed a little at the realization. “This has been the longest summer ever.”

“It will be over soon enough.”

“Maybe too soon. We need to get you back to Kjell before the ice sets in.”

Runa hummed. “Ideally. But I think the Matrons might have a way of getting a message back if we can’t.”

Einarr stared at her then. “Song can do that?”

Runa shook her head. “No, not song. I don’t really understand it, myself – I’m still technically an apprentice, after all. But I also don’t think that’s really what’s been worrying you.”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “It is and it isn’t. It seems like ever since the Oracle named me a Cursebreaker, things have gone… strange. Maybe even before, I guess. That Valkyrie ship was awfully far north. And it’s been all we can do to make it through to the next fireball.”

“That’s because you’re a Cursebreaker.” Runa’s voice was soft as she stared off into the distance of the far wall.

“And Cursebreakers always end badly. The ones we remember go out in a blaze of glory… but if I’m honest I’d rather find my own glory.”

Runa nodded, slowly.

“Somehow, though, the way the Oracle was talking I thought the calling might come with some sort of ability to actually do it.”

Runa’s laugh was rueful. “If only. They might live a little longer then. No, to be named Cursebreaker is almost a curse in and of itself. You’ve already survived longer than most.”

He groaned. The Oracle had taken his firstborn in payment. Would she have accepted that if she thought he wouldn’t survive to have a child? That wasn’t worth dwelling on right now, though. “Right. And immediately after we left Attilsund, we had to deal with an island full of ghosts. And then was your rescue. And now there are two ships’ worth of people waiting for us to get back with the cure to whatever the cultists did to us, and I get us cast away here.”

“Doing well so far.”

Einarr harrumphed. Before he knew what he really wanted to ask her, the sound of fighting filled the break in their conversation. He paused, listening. “We’re in no danger. But the hulder will want us to hurry once they let us out of here.”

Erik hummed in agreement. “Sounds vicious out there. I’ll be glad of a sharp blade and solid maille when we leave.”

“Subtle. Real subtle.” Irding still stared at the ceiling.

“He doesn’t need to be,” Einarr said. “He’s right. We’d do well to check our things.” Suiting action to words, Einarr joined the older men in inspection and repair.

***

When morning came, all was once again quiet in the forest. Einarr had slept, albeit restlessly. He suspected no-one else had done better, though. To sleep when the battle raged outside went against the grain – but this once, that was not their role. They were all ready and waiting when the door once again opened to admit the unsmiling figure of Auna.

“Are you prepared?”

Einarr met her gaze levelly. “As ready as we can be. How will we know when we near the Woodsman’s lair?”

“The darkness will grow lighter, and what once tripped you will draw back into open space. Within this clearing there will be a cave, and it is around the mouth of this cave where you must inscribe the spell. Once the Woodsman realizes you are there, what you are doing, you will be in great danger.”

“I would expect no less,” Runa said, lifting her chin in defiance – not of Auna, certainly, but perhaps the odds.

“Then fortune favor you. Should you succeed where we have failed, we will count you a friend to our people.”

Einarr inclined his head respectfully towards the elder huldra. “We will be off, then. Good fortune to you, as well.”

Auna stepped out of the doorway, and Einarr led the others back out into the forest.

The previous night’s battle had encroached on unscarred land. Einarr frowned and picked up the pace: as reluctant as he was to re-enter the Woodsman’s territory, he was more reluctant to allow the creature its victory by inches over the hulder. Ahead, the wood grew dark.


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5.3 – Medicinal Bath

Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.

Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.

The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”

“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”

To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”

“More purification?”

“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.

“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”

When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.

Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”

“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.

Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”

Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.

***

All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.

Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”

“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”

The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”

“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”

Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”

“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”

She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”

Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.

“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”

Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”

“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”

“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”

The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”

“Hazel and ivory.”

“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”

“I’m supposed to know that, how?”

“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”

“…I think I’m beginning to.”

“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”

More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”

Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”

Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.


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

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

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1.13 – Glíma

Einarr stood in the dirt ring cleared for glíma, studying his opponent. For a hundred feet around it the field was filled with people watching and cheering and drumming. Jarl Hroaldr and all those at Kjell Hall gathered around.

This occupied only a small fragment of Einarr’s attention. More important by far was the swarthy, salt-and-pepper brick of a man standing across the ring from him – Trabbi. The man’s chest and arms were just as muscular as Father’s, and while his beard was thick it was also short and neat. The two men wore only trousers and boots, and the breeze tried to raise goosebumps on their bare arms. Einarr dropped into a fighter’s crouch, and his much larger rival did the same. Among the Vidofnings, the only man smaller than Einarr was Sivid. If there was one fact of wrestling that had been impressed on Einarr, though, it was that size was not as important as it appeared to be.

“Begin!” Jarl Hroaldr gave the signal, and the two men charged to the center of the ring, their arms joining in the clinch.

Einarr’s arms strained against strength born of pulling fish from the sea. Trabbi pulled right and Einarr stepped in, allowing his opponent the throw. No sooner had his back touched the ground than Einarr kicked his legs back into Trabbi’s knees. Einarr sprang back to his feet as the older man fell. A hand reached out to grab his ankle and he danced backward.

Trabbi stood, not bothering to slap the dust off, and the crowd cheered. They moved into the clinch again. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa watching anxiously. He tried to put it from his mind.

Einarr slid his hands up his rival’s arms to clasp them behind the man’s head. The older man’s head lowered with little resistance. Einarr’s eyes widened when he realized what was about to happen. Trabbi abruptly let go of his shoulders and lunged forward, knocking the wind from his rival’s chest even as he took hold of Einarr’s wrist to wrench the arm backwards.

Einarr twisted around to avoid the break and kicked at Trabbi’s hip. The man jumped backwards, releasing his grip on Einarr’s arm. They both dropped back into a crouch and began circling the ring. The crowd cheered wildly, and Einarr couldn’t tell for who. He spat, watching his rival.

Trabbi started the charge this time, and Einarr saw his opportunity. He went low, driving his shoulder into his rival’s stomach and lifting Trabbi’s legs as he straightened. Einarr rolled into the throw. Trabbi’s momentum carried him over to land on his back with Einarr sitting on his chest.

“Yield,” Trabbi wheezed. “I yield.”

Einarr stood and helped the other man to his feet. The crowd went wild with cheering. Jarl Hroaldr had to shout to be noticed above the din. Eventually, it quieted enough that he could speak. “Victory goes to Einarr, son of Stigander, Captain of the Vidofnir. The betrothal between my daughter and Trabbi has been annulled, although what you thought you were defending her from eludes me.”

“The Lady Runa is a strong, intelligent woman, my lord. I defended her against a future she did not wish, and claim her in hopes of fulfilling one she does.”

“Forgetting, for a moment, the things we spoke of last winter: tell me, boy, what makes you think I will give her hand to you? Given your actions of the past week, why should I not have you executed? Banished?” Jarl Hroaldr’s voice was cold. “You ran away with my daughter and betrayed my trust in your own father. Why should I now entrust her to you?”

“I did only what I thought was right, based on the wishes of the Lady Runa herself. I ask you, what is worse – a lifetime, potentially short, of wandering, or a longer one with a mate you do not love, and who I think does not love you?”

Trabbi shook his head. “The boy is right. I’d have treated her kindly, of course, but it is no accident that I have not remarried.”

“Against my better judgement, I will not pronounce him a criminal. However, I shall require tasks of him if he wishes to court my daughter.”

“Name your task, my Jarl, and I shall do it.”

The Jarl nodded once. “But first, let us retire to the Hall. I seem to smell another snowstorm on the wind.”

***

Kjell Hall was abuzz that evening with drinking games and the excited chatter of men recounting the afternoon’s match. The Vidofnir was to sail the next morning in search of the Grendel, and Einarr sat near the head of the room with his father, Runa, and the Jarl.

“Since both your father and Trabbi forgive you, and I know my daughter well enough to recognize when something is her idea, I have decided on your first task.” The Jarl’s voice was level, and his tone suggested that the request would be eminently reasonable. Doubt chewed on Einarr’s stomach nonetheless.

“The goddess Eira was once possessed of a torc studded with diamond and fashioned of gold filigree so pure it shines white – the Isinntog. It is said to have power over ice and storms. You know it?” He waited for them to nod. “The Isinntog was given into the care of the elves of Skaergard many hundreds of years ago to await Eira’s awakening, but it was stolen from them by the jotün Fraener and taken to Svartlauf. Bring me the Isinntog, and it shall be your morning gift for Runa.”

Einarr paled a moment, then nodded boldly. Stealing the Isinntog from a jotünhall was supposed to be the easy task? “Certainly any jewelry less fine would be too drab for her. I will return with this treasure.”

The Jarl nodded; that was the response he’d expected. Stigander clapped him on the back, hard, with a hearty laugh. “Sounds like we each have our impossible quests then, doesn’t it? For you a legendary torc, for me a rogue ship that travels with the storms.”

Einarr laughed in agreement, although he could not put more than half his heart into it. “Is there a boat sufficient to carry me there and back?”

“Runa’s little skiff, if you can find a man or two willing to help you crew it.”

“That I think I can do. Father, may I take a few of my comrades for this?”

“If they’re willing to go.”

“Thank you, Father.” Einarr rose and left to ask some of his fellow Vidofnings who might be willing to join him on such a quest.


1.12 – Negotiations 1.14 – Setting Sail
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