Tag: runes

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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7.5 – Coming Soon

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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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6.32 – Departure

While fixing the Gestrisni went about as well as Einarr could have hoped, that still left them groping for an answer, or even just a clue, of how to get past the magic trapping them here.

“We may have to just go, with the expectation of being turned back once,” Runa finally said. Arkja’s men had already told them what little they knew – some of it from personal experience.

Einarr frowned and crossed his arms. The old fisherman who “welcomed” them to the island was still, days later, nowhere to be found on shore. If it weren’t for the furnished cabin near their boat, he might have wondered if the man really existed.

“You’re not wrong,” Einarr said finally. I don’t like the idea of wasting time that way, but it does begin to seem as though nobody knows.”

“Seems to me,” Jorir mused, “that the waste of time would be sticking around after she’s fixed, looking for information that may not even exist.”

Erik harrumphed. Einarr nodded.

“That is, more or less, the conclusion I was reaching. I kind of wish we had Sivid along right now, though.”

Irding raised an eyebrow. Arkja, as the only member of the newcomers working on the escape plan instead of loading, looked confused.

Einarr smiled at the confusion. “Irding, you’ve only been aboard a few months, so maybe you haven’t noticed yet. Sivid may be Unlucky, but everything seems to work out when he’s around.”

“Then why’s he unlucky?” Arkja asked.

Einarr smiled again. He couldn’t give the whole answer – that wasn’t his to tell – but he didn’t have to. “Bad at dice.”

“And that earned him a moniker?”

“You’ll understand when you meet him.”

The leader of the newcomers shrugged. “Do you still need me, then? The boys could use a hand with the loading.”

“Go ahead. I expect the rest of us will be along shortly… Actually, I think we’re basically done here. Irding, why don’t you go with him?”

Erik’s son tipped his head in assent and followed the one-time tavern keeper off to the ship, where he would supervise as much as help. Erik and Jorir had agreed to give the manifest a final check, and so soon it was once again just Einarr and Runa.

Finally. In all the activity, Einarr still hadn’t managed to make his request of her.

Runa had started to turn away, likely headed for their camp and the cook fire.

“Wait a moment.”

She turned back, her brows raised questioningly.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask of you for a while now, actually…”

She did not fill the silence, merely waited expectantly for him to continue. For Einarr’s part, he kept telling himself it was a stupid thing to be embarrassed about – not that that made him less so, of course.

“Runa, will you teach me how to read the runes? With everything that’s gone on, if we hadn’t had a Singer along we never would have made it out. But I’m not always going to be able to rely on having someone else available to interpret…”

Runa held up a hand to stop his babbling. “Of course I will teach you, Runes and something of Story both. I would like for us to actually be wed one day, rather than being a widowed maid.”

Einarr inclined his head, and was surprised at the hoarseness of his voice when he said “Thank you.”

***

The morning after all was deemed to be in readiness, the strange old fisherman returned to shore. Einarr first caught sight of him ambling down the shore from the south, which struck him as odd: even now, none of them had seen the man’s boat.

“Good morrow!” He raised a hand in greeting as the old man continued up the beach towards them.

“Is it?” he growled, a familiar echo of their first day on the island. “I wonder.”

“Of course it is. We’re finally ready to try our luck.”

The old man stopped a moment to stare at the repaired Gestrisni, apparently unimpressed. He harrumphed and resumed his walk up the beach, ignoring the fools on their quest.

A wild impulse seized Einarr. “We’ve still got room aboard, if you want to test your fate with ours.”

The old man stopped again, threw back his head, and laughed. “Why would I steal you kids’ chance of getting off?”

Einarr’s mind went momentarily blank, but when he opened his mouth the only possible answer spilled forth, almost of its own volition. “Because the captain of this vessel has been named a Cursebreaker.”

The old man shook his head now. “That’s the only reason I think you have a chance at all, kid. Leave this old fool to his justly earned exile.”

Einarr shared a look with Runa, then shook his head. He was curious, but they had wasted too much time on this accursed island already. The men from the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun were waiting. Einarr and Runa walked toward their ship.

“Milord?” Arkja popped his head up over the railing. “There’s some sort of large jar on the deck. Where do you want it?”

Einarr blinked. How had that gotten here? He sighed, shaking his head. “Just stow it in the hold, I guess. Make use of it if you can.”

“A… jar?” Runa looked at him sidelong.

“It’s a long story. We’ll have time on our way.”

Runa hummed, looking amused, and let it rest.

***

That evening, Runa performed the Lay of Raen at Einarr’s request, and for the benefit of the newcomers. In the melancholy mood that always followed, Jorir and the other Vidofnings gathered together near the prow of the boat to talk. It wasn’t private, but it was as near as they could manage.

Staring out over the railing at the stars on the sea, Jorir scratched his beard thoughtfully. “It’s a shame we couldn’t do anything for the old man.”

Even as Einarr was nodding in agreement, Arkja’s brows knit in confusion from just outside their circle. “Old man? What old man?”

“The old fisherman on the beach? I told him we still had room, but he refused?”

The erstwhile tavern keeper slowly shook his head. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but there was no old man on the beach. That shack you kept checking has stood empty for as long as anyone I’ve ever talked to can remember.”


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6.6 – Guardians of the Forest

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

“Ah, there y’are!” Jorir exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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5.24 – Second Chance

That cut on his side was going to be a problem. It wasn’t likely to kill him, he didn’t think, but the blood showed no sign of slowing yet. Well. A bandage was just cloth, and he was wearing plenty of that. Einarr gripped the hem of his tunic and tore.

The fabric came off in a spiral. When he thought it was long enough, he held the strip tightly against Sinmora’s blade and sawed down. Then, gritting his teeth the entire time, he wrapped the makeshift bandage about his chest and over his opposite shoulder to hold the rest of the tunic tight against his wound.

Once it was tied, Einarr tested his work with a pair of deep breaths. That should hold. He looked around the room at the statues, now out of any semblance of order… except the statues of his father and the Jarl had not budged. He furrowed his eyebrows: that was plainly the clue. What else might it mean?

A brightness caught his eye from the floor at his feet: the Valkyrie’s feather. He stooped to pick it up, and Einarr’s fingers tingled as they gripped the shaft. Why she had left it, he could not begin to guess. Carefully, to avoid dripping blood on it, he threaded it through the buckle of his baldric.

His hand brushed against the pouch at his belt, where the wooden broach rested. Mysteries upon mysteries. Einarr sighed. Even should those runes spell out the answer to this puzzle, it was of no use to him here. He shook his head and harrumphed. If the answer was not in the relationship ties between the images, what might it be?

Einarr stepped slowly over to stand before the images of his father and Runa’s. They stood – or sat – implacably, facing each other. The Jarl sat on his throne, looming over all below him, while Stigander stood exhorting unseen hosts. It would be hard to imagine two more different images…

That’s it! For all that Jarl Hroaldr and Stigander were old friends, they were in many ways mirrors of each other. Thus, if his hunch was right, each image would have a mirror of sorts on the floor somewhere.

He thought he had the trick of it, at least. Moving the statues had been cumbersome before. Now he was tired from the fight and wounded besides. Each step across the room reminded him of the shards in his shins, but at least his makeshift bandage quelled the fire in his side.

He slotted Arring, with his massive strength, opposite of Barri, who like Einarr was faster than he was strong. Jorir faced Tyr, the ageless and wise blacksmith against the aged and wise sailor. Einarr frowned at this one, but could think of no more sensible option. Runa, the Jarl’s daughter, would be matched with him, Jarl’s daughter to Thane’s son and so many other mirrors besides.

The real trouble was attached to the image of Erik and Sivid dicing together. Ordinarily, Einarr would have matched each as the other’s opposite… so then, what to do when they were shown together? Einarr paced a lap around the room, pondering this. There were few other options remaining.

He stopped when he once again came face to face with the pairing of Jorir and Tyr, which he had not been happy with. The two had as much in common as in opposition. The image of Jorir, however, showed him working at a forge. Erik and Sivid, on the other hand, were at play. It was so simple he had almost missed it.

Finally, once all the statues were in place, Einarr approached the last remaining depression in the floor with some trepidation. His hands had started to shake, which he blamed on fatigue. That what remained of his tunic was sodden with blood had nothing to do with it. With a deep breath, Einarr took his place in the display.

Instead of a lance of pain through his head there was a grinding noise as the statues all turned on their bases. Some of the pairs rearranged themselves on the floor, leaving a broad open path across the floor of the room. At the end of the path, he could now see a door that had not been there before. Einarr breathed an unconscious sigh of relief as he hurried down the path. He did not think he could face the Valkyrie a second time.

Einarr raised his uninjured hand and pulled on the door. A blinding light flashed.

He stood on the landing of a stairway heading up. Around him on the landing were Jorir, Runa, Erik and Irding. He smiled and opened his mouth to greet his friends, but suddenly the world tried to turn upside down.

Einarr blinked several times, partly in surprise to see he was leaning on Erik’s shoulder – When did that happen? – and partly because the world seemed to have gone blurry around him.

“He’s hurt,” Runa was saying, and he could hear sogginess in her voice. “Come now, quickly, we have to get him someplace flat at least.”

Erik started slowly up the stairs. Einarr tried to lift his feet, but with each step it felt more as though he were being dragged. Something about the situation seemed familiar, and recently so.

“My medicine pouch is down on the boat,” Jorir grumbled.

“Why on earth would you leave it there?” Runa’s question was a good one. She growled in frustration and then began to sing.

The song was like a cool breeze across Einarr’s face, and he relaxed into it. Runa mumbled something about the wound looking bad, and Jorir’s sarcastic rumble answered. He lifted a foot to aid Erik, but the combination of injury and song magic was too much for him right then. Einarr drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of Runa’s voice.


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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by! 

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

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

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

5.6 – At the Blue Hall

The public hall where Einarr found the Vidofnings and Brunnings was surprisingly large for a town no bigger than East Port. If Einarr had to take a guess, most of their custom came from ships such as their own, here to call on the Conclave.

A cheer went up as the door swung open under Reki’s hand. Inside the hall was as warm and cheery as one might expect at the end of a good season of raiding. With a grin, Einarr moved to join his crewmates with a drink while Reki went to report to Stigander. All eight of their party were able to breathe a sigh of relief when they saw that there had, in fact, been no transformations as of yet – only the complaints they had grown used to of nausea and headaches as though their crews had both contracted a lingering flu.

Even Reki’s news did not dampen their enthusiasm: if anything, the fact that they had found their “cure” before the corruption had claimed anyone was another victory over the madmen of the cult. Then it was Einarr’s turn.

“I’ve been given another impossible quest, I’m afraid, Father.”

“Feh. Do skalds give any other kind?”

“Not likely.”

“Well, what is it now?”

“I’m to travel to the Tower of Ravens and steal Frigg’s distaff out from under the noses of Huginn and Muninn.”

Stigander looked just as confused as Einarr had. “What in the depths of all the seas do you need that for?”

“Untangling fate, they say, and ridding us of the cult’s corruption for good.”

His father shook his head and wiped his hand down his moustaches, his expression changing from amusement to consternation and back again. “Well, if there’s anyone in this lot who can manage it, I’d lay my odds on you.”

Sivid could do it, if it weren’t for his accursed luck. “Thank you, Father. The Matrons said the tower required a smaller boat to reach: I’m to pay a call on a fisherman in the morning regarding the use of a boat. I’d like to take some of the crew along.”

“Long as they’re up for it, same as before. …This distaff, you said it untangles fate?”

Einarr nodded, and his father harrumphed. There was no need to say it: such a thing could easily break the Weaver’s curse on their homeland. He turned back to the hall full of his fellow Vidofnings.

“All right, everyone! Just like this spring, I need a few of you to venture out in a little fishing boat with me. This time we’re braving the wrath of a god!”

His pronouncement was followed by a peal of laughter, even by those who had heard the Matrons’ pronouncement at the Conclave.

Jorir, to no-one’s surprise, was the first to step forward. “Come hel or high water, I’m with ye.”

Einarr inclined his head at his man-at-arms. “Thank you, Jorir. Who else?”

The next man to step forward was gangly Irding, neither as tall nor as muscle-bound as his father but with the same brown hair and reckless grin. “Sounds like fun. I’ll give it a go.”

Erik’s head snapped around to look at his son. “You sure about that? We got into a heap o’ trouble going after the Isinntog.”

“I know. That’s why it sounds like fun.” Irding grinned at his father, and Erik laughed loudly.

“Who’m I kidding? Of course it does. Count me in, too.”

Einarr’s mouth curled in a half-smile. Irding looked a little less happy at the prospect now that Erik was also along, but it would be good for them. “Great. Anyone else? I expect we’ll have to work our way past traps, and if anyone knows how to read runes it would be a help.”

“I already told you, I’m coming,” Runa said, standing at the table.

“No, you’re not. There’s no telling what sort of violence we might come across.”

“You’re invading the tower of Huginn and Muninn. You need someone familiar with magic, who can read runes. I’m coming.”

Aema, the Brunning’s battle-chanter, stepped forward. “You’re hardly the only one here with those qualifications.”

“No, but I’m the only one here with those qualifications who isn’t needed here. You and Reki both have crews to tend, full of men doused with corrupted blood, and I do not. I may be a Jarl’s daughter, but that doesn’t make me useless.”

“Maybe not,” Trabbi rumbled, “but if anything should happen to you your Father will have my head. He may even if you go along and nothing happens.”

Runa met her erstwhile suitor’s eyes. “On my word of honor, I will not allow that to happen.”

Trabbi scowled back. “You have no more place on that boat than I do, my Lady.”

“That is where you’re wrong.” She turned her attention back to Einarr, and he felt the old familiar thrill. “What was it that the alfr gave you in the wood?”

“Some bauble he thought would help us through the tower, though at the moment I can’t see how.” That had been the way of Runa’s gifts, too, given as they left to seek the Jotünhall.

“Give it here.”

Einarr shrugged and removed the bird-shaped brooch from the pouch at his belt. “Doesn’t the use typically become plain when you need it?”

All three Singers rolled their eyes at him even as Runa took hold of the brooch and blanched.

Einarr couldn’t help the question. “What is it?”

“Let us hope the use becomes plain, because while I can read the runes, they look like so much nonsense.”

Reki threaded her way through the room to take a closer look. She raised pale eyebrows and let loose a low whistle. “Well, at the very least your elf-gift should actually be of use. How did he get this, though?”

“See, Runa? I’m sure we’ll be able to muddle through-”

“So long as you have someone who can read the runes. You need me, and one way or another I’m coming.” Runa’s jaw was set. Einarr turned to Bollinn.

The new Captain of the Skudbrun sighed. “I don’t think there’s any stopping her at this point. Over my own better judgement, I’ll allow it.”

Runa smiled in triumph. Einarr hoped she wouldn’t regret her insistence.


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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by!

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.

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Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available. I just reworked my reward tiers, so I hope you’ll give it another look.

4.5 – Runes

Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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4.4 – Massacre

Bulging eyes stared blankly out of the gray-blue face of the hanged butcher. Black scabbed-over gashes formed runes on the man’s chest.

“Trabbi… what didn’t your captain tell us?” Einarr could not tear his eyes from the scene that faced them.

A sigh sounded from over his shoulder. “We stopped, or tried to, twice before Mikilgata, in search of information about the ship we chased. Both times, a town the size of Kjellvic, and everyone…” Trabbi trailed off.

“Any sign of who did this?” If ever there was an impetus for the clans to join together, this would be it.

“Not thus far.”

Einarr cleared his throat and forcibly turned his head back to the street, where Trabbi and Bardr both stared over his shoulders, into what had once been a warehouse. That the sun beat down on their shoulders only made what they found inside worse. Einarr reached back without looking and pulled the door to behind him. It still wouldn’t latch.

“There has to be some sign of who did this. I can’t believe an entire town would go down without a fight…” He had to clear his throat again. “And is there any point to a massacre like this if no-one is around to spread a warning?”

The other two only shook their heads. It was hard to think there was a point to this sort of slaughter even then… and certainly those who worked such acts tended not to last long on the sea. To raid and pillage was one thing. This… this was quite another.

Now Einarr met the eyes of his chaperones. “Come on. We won’t learn anything standing around here.”

***

Everywhere they checked was the same. Oh, the bodies varied, of course, as did the means of death… but where there was a rune-carved body they found blood, and nowhere else. No arrows left behind, though some had plainly been shot. What footprints may have existed were long since obscured by wind or the tread of the searchers. Now what?

“What did your Battle Chanter make of this when you saw it before?” Bardr asked Trabbi.

The old fisherman just shook his head. “Something wicked, something vile… nothing unnatural.”

“A crew that must be purged, then?” Einarr could credit that for one massacre. Two perhaps not.

“So she said. We have no reason to doubt her.”

“Save for three instances of… this, now.”

Trabbi grunted, but did not look as offended as Einarr had half-expected.

“We’re missing something, I think, and it’s making my skin crawl. Bardr, do you think Reki would be able to tell anything?”

“Maybe, if they made use of Song in their attack.” Doubt filled the Mate’s voice.

“Why wouldn’t they…? Oh.” The Grendel, when they had attacked last fall and murdered Astrid, had used no Song Magic in their attack. Then Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. “You think they’re connected?”

“I think we have to consider it, under the circumstances. It’s entirely possible they know they’re being pursued.”

“But even if they know that, how would they know their pursuers would break off like this?”

Bardr had no answer for that question.

“Let’s see if Reki has any ideas for us.” Einarr turned back towards the wharf, a feeling on the back of his neck as though he were being watched. Three steps later he stopped. Something had moved, just at the upper edge of his vision. He looked up.

“What in the world…” The image before Einarr’s eyes made no sense, but it was unmistakably runic.

“By the gods…” Trabbi breathed, his voice as appalled as Einarr’s. Bardr stood staring, stunned.

Einarr turned his head to look at his one-time rival. “Tell me someone on your ship knows how to read runes?”

“One or two of us, I think. Does no one on the Vidofnir?”

“Not unless Reki does. Father doesn’t think much of fortune-tellers.”

Bardr snorted and shook his head, dismissing the shock. “No. Never has. But I’d be surprised if most Singers didn’t have at least some knowledge of the runes. Let’s go.”

The Vidofnir’s Mate took the lead, striding back to the ships at a fast enough clip that Einarr nearly had to run to keep up.

***

The three men hurrying down the docks were the first to return from their excursion into the city. Stigander stood waiting at the top of the Vidofnir’s gangplank, while Captain Kragnir was inspecting his hull from the deck.

“What news?” Stigander asked.

“We haven’t seen a living soul.” Trabbi shook his head. “It’s just like all the others, Captain.”

Captain Kragnir cursed. “Not one?”

Bardr shook his head. “Not a one. But if there is someone capable of interpreting runes, we have need of their assistance.”

Captain Kragnir whistled, and several of the Brunnings came forward on the deck. On the other side of the dock, the cloaked figure of Reki stepped slowly forward.

“All right, gents!” Kragnir boomed. “We’re dealing with the same sick bastard as before – only this time, there’s scribbling to be read! One of you lot knows the old runes, right?”

“Herrid do, sir, only he went out with the rest.”

“…Herrid? Really?” Kragnir shook his head, although Einarr had no idea why that would be strange. “And he’s the only one o’ you lot?”

“I know it,” a feminine voice purred from farther back on the Skudbrun. “But if it’s the same as before, I don’t know that it will help you.”

“It can’t hurt to check, Aema. Go with them. Maybe the runes will tell you something the atmosphere didn’t last time.”

“As you say.” A moderately pretty woman stepped forward from among the Brunnings. She could have been Runa’s aunt, from her appearance.

“I, too, will go.” Reki’s sultry voice made the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck stand on end.

“Is that necessary, Reki?” Stigander asked.

“Perhaps not. I merely wish to see for myself what sort of creature we are dealing with here. Or does my Captain disdain me so much he would allow his heir to venture forth, but not his Singer?”

A viper’s tongue on that one, when she wanted it. Einarr was impressed, even as Stigander gave in.

“Good. The five of us shall return when we have something to report.”


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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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