Tag: runes

7.21 – Divination

The divination ritual was to be held in the selfsame temple that had housed the Shroud for so long, down in the very vault that had imprisoned it until Sinmora had eaten the magic out of nowhere. I wonder what Vali would have to say about that?

Einarr shook his head, casting off the idle thought. Something about returning to the vault had his stomach doing somersaults, and his mind was just as unsettled. Vali, of course, was half a world away (so far as Einarr knew), on a ship whose adventures should be far tamer and more profitable for Einarr’s absence.

Meanwhile, he had an all-consuming burial cloth floating about the island, seemingly at random – provided it hadn’t yet found a way off the island. That it would was taken as a given by the alfs, although with its tattered end Einarr hoped that would be more difficult than otherwise.

He blinked, refocusing on the trail ahead of him. Melja and Mira led Einarr and a handful of villagers to the temple. The weather, as it always seemed to be, was fair. Are we in Imperial waters, or just near them? Another idle thought flitted up, trying to distract him from the task at hand. Knowing he was nervous didn’t help, though, nor did the knowledge that there was nothing to be nervous about at this stage. All that would happen here is a runic divination to locate the Shroud. After that, it was up to him. Melja had made that perfectly clear.

Finally, the air ahead lightened and he saw the broad clearing and the high wooden walls of the temple. His stomach flopped once more, and then Einarr felt his composure returning. This would be no harder than any other challenge he had faced this summer, and possibly easier than some. He wasn’t going up against creatures with corrupted blood this time, after all. Just a piece of cloth animated by some strange, malignant will.

The vault appeared exactly as it had the last time Einarr had descended those steps, save only that the icy blue glow of the ward runes had been replaced by a new rune matrix. This one was not yet active, his eyes told him even if his rudimentary training had not. They all entered the vault and spread out to stand where Melja and his wife directed.

Once they were all spread about the room, Melja stepped carefully into the center of the matrix and placed the scrap of cloth at his feet. He then moved to take his place between Mira and Einarr in their seven fixed points on the outer circle.

Einarr had seen, once or twice when he was new to the Vidofnir, the casting of the runes by street corner fortune-tellers. The patron (or mark, as Father always called them) asked his question, and the fortune teller (charlatan) would cast sticks or dice down before him and read the answer from those.

What Melja performed in that vault was similar only in that both involved the use of runes. He spoke a word in what Einarr thought was the high elven tongue, and as one the runes began to glow with a pale golden light.

Everyone grew still, although he would not have said they moved before. Melja continued to speak in the strange incomprehensible tongue of the ljosalfs, and while Einarr could not understand the words he felt he did not need to. Indeed, he felt rather curiously detached, as though he were watching the ritual as an outside observer.

A mist seemed to rise up in the center of the room, in a column about the scrap of cloth, and in that mist an image appeared.

A chieftan’s seat in his hall appeared, empty. A thick bearskin rug was spread across the floor, and the cloth spread over the chair was crimson. Einarr’s throat clenched: it had already gotten the chieftan: was it going for the boy, now, too?

No. Skirts drifted into view, and the smiling face of a middle-aged woman and Einarr’s throat cleared. But I thought the boy’s mother was on the hunting trip with them?

The image faded, only to be replaced. No lord’s hall here: instead, it was a public hall like those Sivid favored. Einarr could almost smell the salt in the air, and feel the pounding of feet in the hallingdanse, though once again he saw no-one in the image itself. One of the rugs on the ground, though soiled, was the diaphanous crimson of the Shroud. The sound of a golden bell rang out, and then that image too faded from view.

The mist grew darker and blue, and in that blueness appeared the black of a boat at night. Despite the lighting, though, Einarr could see two things about the boat: its crimson sail, and the bear’s head carved on its prow. The image faded, and the mist dispersed.

Einarr and the elves in the circle looked about at each other, blinking in the sudden return to the present. Melja looked up and met Einarr’s eyes.

“Three chances you will have. The Shroud’s next target is the young Armad’s aunt, the regent Brynja in their Hall outside Eskiborg. She is power-hungry and often vicious, but the boy will likely take her death hard at this time. Especially if she, too, falls to the Shroud.”

Einarr nodded slowly. He, too, would much rather not let it take anyone else. Still, though, the port was a not insignificant distance. How long did he have?

“If you fail there,” Melja continued. “It will then make its way into Eskiborg. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with the city to know which public hall that was, but I suspect the golden bell we heard to be a clue… If it makes it to the city…”

That was Einarr’s concern, as well. “You all assume it is looking for a way off the island. But if it’s in the city, will it still kill until it takes a boat?”

“Likely yes. I could not tell you if its target at the hall will be for death or for passage, but your final chance will be on that boat.”

“The one with the bear’s head. I wish I could have seen it in better light, but I know what to look for.”

“Good. Then go. And gods be with you.”


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7.17 – Practical Magic

Einarr’s head swam, although he could feel the hard ground beneath it. The crackle of a nearby campfire was unmistakeable. The last thing he remembered was etching an ᚱ into some birch bark to keep for later use. What… happened? Where am I?

He blinked, and at first all he saw was a brownish blur. When he opened his eyes again, though, his vision was clear. That brown blur was the glow of firelight on the branches of an ash, and beyond that the starry field of night. Einarr groaned.

“Awake, are you?” The creaking voice of an old woman broke the stillness. “I’d begun to wonder if your foolishness had actually killed you.”

With another groan, Einarr pushed himself up on his elbows and squinted at the source of the voice. “What do you mean?”

The woman who sat across the fire from him in a colorless cloak appeared ancient – older, even, than the oldest of the Matrons on Breidhaugr. Old enough that Einarr was surprised to see her out in the forest at all.

“What I mean,” the crone said. “Is that the village alfs never should have let you out of their sight. What were you thinking, carving all those runestones?”

Einarr blinked at her, a little confused. “You mean those chips? I thought they’d be useful…”

“Not much use if you’ve so much of your life tied up in them they kill you. You’re a novice, and a human to boot. There’s no way your soul could support more than a handful.”

Einarr sat all the way up. For just a campfire, the light seemed awfully bright to his eyes right then. “What do you mean?”

The old woman with her drawn features snorted. “Wise enough to listen to your elders, at any rate. Did your alfr master tell you, properly, what the limits of rune magic are?”

“The Runemaster requires time, primarily. Time to inscribe the proper runes for his purpose.”

The crone nodded. “That’s right, so far as it goes. He didn’t mention runestones?”

Einarr shook his head. “I’ve only a few months with them. I only really wanted to learn how to read them. Probably he decided there wasn’t time to teach me.”

She snorted again. “Not quite, I suspect. Runestones are an advanced technique. Not because they’re particularly difficult: any fool can inscribe a rune and make it last. But every one you make ties up a portion of your life energy. With the number you had on you, you’re lucky I found you.”

“I… Yes. Thank you, for that. How long was I out?”

“It’s been a day and a half since I destroyed them for you. As for how long you’d been out before that, I really couldn’t say.”

Einarr blanched. “More than a day… since you destroyed them?”

“That’s right – and a good thing you put them on wood, too. If you’d been fool enough to carve them in stone, this old woman wouldn’t have been able to break them. That’s the only way to reclaim the bits of your spirit, after all.”

“I see.” He did, actually: his eyes finally felt like they were back to normal. “How do you know so much?”

The crone cackled. “You’re not the first over-extended student of the runes this old Singer has seen. Not on this island.”

“Wait, hold on. You’re a Singer?”

“I was, in my youth. Voice is gone, now, but it didn’t take my mind with it.” She laughed again.

Einarr nodded slowly, considering. “You have my thanks for the rescue. Tell me, did you move me from where I was found?”

“You give these old bones a good deal of credit, young man. We are not far off the path where I found you, in a little clearing not many others know. In the morning, you are free to go about your business – although if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get back to that village and bow your neck to Elder Melja. Tell him Geiti sent you scampering back, and if he doesn’t want to lose more students he should stop hiding ‘dangerous’ information.”

Einarr couldn’t keep a small smile off of his face. “I’ll be sure to tell him that when I return. But I can’t go back immediately.”

The crone resettled herself on the ground, leaning forward a bit with interest. “And what, then, has a young novice wandering about like a toddler just finding his feet?”

I think I deserved that one? “The Shroud has been freed.”

“Good gods, man, what are you doing out here? Get back to the village, let the Runemasters handle it.”

“The Runemasters can’t handle it if they can’t find it. I’m trying to make sure they know where to look.”

“And why, praytell, did they let a novice take on that job?”

He sighed. “Forgive me, grandmother Geiti. I’m afraid I haven’t properly introduced myself. I am Einarr, only son of Stigander, the son of Raen of Breidlestein. Wandering prince, veteran raider, no meagre hunter, and the named Cursebreaker besides.”

“Well well well. Now I have even more questions. But, they will wait. It is late, and you are still recovering your strength. Sleep now, and we will speak more in the morning.”

And so Einarr laid his head back down on the bare earth to stare at the stars and the light flickering on the branches above. Sleep eluded him, and he was uncertain if that was because his life energy was returning to him – he felt stronger almost by the minute – or if it was because even here he could not escape his Calling. Eventually, though, he must have dropped off, because when next he opened his eyes the sky was the pale blue of early morning. The smell of berried porridge clung to the morning air. When he sat up, the ancient Singer offered him a toothless smile and a wooden bowl.


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7.16 – Runestones

In the middle of the night, Einarr was awakened by an idea. The keepers of the lodge might not think too highly of him for learning the runes, but Einarr had known very few who would refuse magical aid outright. Besides, he hadn’t practiced since he left the village.

Quietly, although he thought it unlikely he would wake the stupefied men at arms, Einarr made his way from the Lodge into the garden they kept. He had done this as practice some weeks ago in Mira’s garden, and while tedious he thought it would be some measure to repaying their aid and hospitality.

Einarr let himself into the vegetable patch and made his way carefully to the far corner. There, in the dirt around a pumpkin mound, he traced the ᛃ and willed it active, strengthening the plant and encouraging the fruit to grow. He went on, repeating this process as he went. About halfway through the garden, an idea occurred to him: he knew he could use one rune to affect multiple plants, although at somewhat reduced effect. He also knew that one could power more than one rune at a time, else how would inscriptions of multiple runes work? Thus, could he inscribe the rune multiple times, once for each plot, and then activate them all together?

He might have preferred to test this in Mira’s garden, but based on what they had taught him it should work – and let him finish before dawn. He went to work.

The sky was just beginning to lighten as Einarr traced the rune in the dirt by the cabbages. With a deep breath, he looked out over the garden and nodded. He focused his will and activated each of the runes he had just laboriously traced.

A moment’s lightheadedness came over him and he blinked, but then he saw the leaves of the garden vegetables grow lusher and straighter, just as if he had done each plant one at a time, and smiled. On that note, before any of the men of the Lodge were awake, Einarr took his leave.

The morning wore on as Einarr retraced their steps from the previous day, and as he walked it began to grate on him that he was neglecting the training he was brought out here for. Inscribing a rune, though, took little enough concentration that he thought he could at least get practice with the forms as he walked. There would be no trail to pick up until he reached the old campsite anyway.

Einarr picked up a long stick he found by the side of the trail, and would periodically pause to inscribe a rune in the ground – something that would either benefit what was nearby, or at least do no harm. He would inscribe a rune, with one of its characteristics firmly in mind, and activate it, and move on.

Eventually, though, he ran out of runes he could practice in this way, so instead he found himself a strip of birch bark and charred the end of his stick – with his flint, not the rune – in order to write things out as he traveled. Now then. He hadn’t wanted to practice hagall – scrawling in the dirt with a stick. The rune was far too finicky for that, and even on his birch bark with a shorter implement he found he needed to stop and concentrate on what he was doing.

As he finished the last stroke and examined his work for flaws, the rune glowed faintly sky blue and a chill breeze began to eddy around him. The breeze was oddly constant as he took a few steps, and then a few more. He looked again at the bark in his hands: the rune still glowed, faintly, although Einarr was not aware of powering it. Was this how the wards on the shroud had worked? He laughed, pleased at the discovery, and tried willing the wind rune on the page to stop.

He was more than a little surprised when it did. How convenient. With a grin, Einarr paused at a large rock by the side of the path and used his knife to cut free the section of bark that could call the wind. This he put in the pouch at his belt before moving on.

Next he drew the rune of wisdom – – and cut it free, as well. If there was one thing he had often wished for over the course of the past year, it was wisdom beyond his years. This he followed with the rune of self – ᛗ – and the shield rune – ᛉ.

Fatigue settled over Einarr’s limbs as he walked, although it was not yet noon. That’s what I get for rising in the middle of the night, I suppose. Einarr shrugged. He would stop and rest for a little once he found a promising spot on the trail. He wasn’t far from the campsite, though, even with how this had slowed his pace, and so he pressed on.

There was still birch bark left. On a lark, he made a chip for the generous rune (ᚷ) and one for the ocean rune (ᛚ). After all, if he could make these in advance and then use them at need, there was no reason not to.

His feet felt like lead now, inexplicably. Had he truly grown so soft during his time with the alfs? He shook his head. There was enough bark left for one more, and then he would stop to focus on his hunt. The rune of journeys, I think. With a nod, he began to inscribe the ᚱ on the birch bark. As he finished the last stroke, he felt his awareness begin to swim. A powerful feeling of vertigo swept over him, and the forest faded to black.


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7.12 – Broken Cage

The thief’s fiery sword, flaming no longer, fell to the floor with a clatter as the man backed towards the cellar ladder. The man’s eyes were wide, and it was like he couldn’t tell what was most horrifying.

Einarr, though, was too stunned to pursue. Sinmora still shone with the magic it had stolen… from… the wards!

Einarr spun on his heel even as the thief screamed. A red blur whipped past Einarr to the sound of feet racing up the rungs of the ladder. The glow of runes from within the vault was gone. The cellar was now lit only by the icy cold light emanating from Sinmora. The vault was empty.

Einarr now raced up the ladder, Sinmora’s hilt still clutched in his hand. At that moment, two thoughts warred for dominance in his head: where is the Shroud and what just happened?

At the top of the ladder Einarr stopped, trying to spot the thief. He shouldn’t have been that far ahead, but Einarr could neither see nor hear any trace of him.

Frowning, Einarr ran for the exit. He didn’t know where the thief had gone, but it didn’t much matter now. The Muspel Shroud was loose, and if even half what Melja had told him was accurate they were in trouble.

The bay was gone. Einarr had no way of knowing if it was being run into the ground or if it had fallen victim to the Shroud. He sheathed his sword and ran for the village.


Einarr arrived on the outskirts of the village, red-faced and winded, an hour later. Melja demanded, before he had caught his breath, “Did you stop him?”

Einarr shook his head. “I mean, yes, but it didn’t matter. My sword -”

He was interrupted by a long wail from his teacher. “What do you mean, it didn’t matter?”

“My sword… it’s never done anything like this before! My sword ate the wards, and then used that to put out his sword!” He drew Sinmora to show them the blade, still unnaturally cold and glowing faintly even in daylight.

“So the Shroud is free, for the first time in generations,” Melja moaned again, but then seemed to really see the blade held out before him. “What did you say?”

“Sinmora. Always before, she wasn’t magical at all. Then today, fighting that thief, it was like she sucked in all the power from the wards. It put out his sword, but…”

“But it cost us the ward.” The man sighed, then cursed. “You plainly didn’t expect your sword to start pulling power. There’s no point in casting stones. Let’s just… find the thing and lock it back down.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Einarr paused, trying to recall what all he’d been told. “Um, how was it caught the first time?”

“My great-great grandfather set a trap for it.” Melja sighed again. “But, so far as we can tell, he never told anyone how he trapped it. My grandfather said he thought something about the trap was shameful.”

Einarr grimaced. That gave him an unfortunate idea of what might have been involved. “Let’s see if we can’t come up with a cleaner method, then. Surely, as its guardians for so long, there are records of what it can do?”

Melja nodded, suddenly looking very tired. “This way.”


No-one ever saw the thief – or his horse – again. Within the village, it was assumed they fell to the Shroud.

Einarr, closeted away with the dusty scrolls of the Runemasters, quickly grew frustrated. Always before he could consult a Singer, and even if they did not know they could extrapolate. Here, it seemed that the records were all either far too precise or hopelessly vague.

By noon on the second day after the attack, he was fed up. “This is not where I belong here. I’m going to go out and look for the thing, so that hopefully once you have an answer we can just use it.”

Melja looked up from his scroll from under his brows. “That impatience will be the death of you one day, if you’re not careful.”

Einarr snorted. “But not, I think, today. I am not a scholar, Melja, and all my progress with the runes isn’t going to change that. But I am a decent hunter.”

“Suit yourself.”

With a nod of thanks, Einarr excused himself. The clean air outside refreshed his mood immediately, and the clear sky and bright sun made it hard to remember that there was an intelligent piece of cloth on the island, looking for its next prey. What in the name of all the gods am I doing with my life?

He shook his head, shaking off the wry impression that had been haunting him all summer, it seemed. The Shroud had either kept to the forest thus far, or bypassed the village that had for so long been set to watch over its prison. The port, however, was an equally poor place to try to pick up its track: too far away, and likely too large.

Luckily, the local chief maintained a hunting lodge not far from the Shrouded village that he was known to frequent, and when he was not there personally there were some few hired hands who lived there to maintain it. If anyone would have noticed something amiss, it would be a professional hunter. With a spring in his step and his good elven cloak over his shoulders, Einarr set out across the forest.

Now all that was necessary was for Melja or Mira to find something – anything – that could help them defeat the damnable thing.


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7.11 – Rematch

Einarr blinked back to consciousness with the faces of Melja and Mira staring down at him and a strange tingling on his forehead and shield arm. He knit his brow. “What happened?”

“The fool has gone to free the Shroud!” Melja’s voice was husky, as though from shouting. “Our runes had no effect. At this rate…”

Einarr nodded, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll not lose a second time,” he swore.

With Sinmora back in her sheath, and a new shield on his arm, Einarr set off at a jog for the temple.

Catching up with the man before he found the temple was a lost cause, Einarr was sure. That meant he would be facing the thief at the temple – hopefully before he found the vault, but Einarr would not hold his breath for that.

As Einarr jogged the trail, glad it was clearly marked, he replayed their earlier fight. It had been, he thought, like going up against Erik, except that so far as Erik was concerned, sparring was play. But even outmassed and out-reached as Einarr was, even with that magic sword, Einarr knew there had to be a way to fight the thief. He just hoped he had enough time to discover what that was.

As Einarr entered the open field surrounding the temple, he saw the thief’s horse grazing hungrily. The thief was nowhere in sight. Einarr sighed and picked up his pace: time was running out.

It was easy, unfortunately, to track the thief’s progress through the temple by the scorch marks he left on walls and floor alike. Einarr could think of no reason for those, or for the sword to be drawn in the first place. Had he been expecting guards? That seemed unlikely. The man’s wanton destruction did suggest a means under his skin, however. Those most willing to show off their swords, after all, were also said to be lacking in manhood – if not perhaps in quite the same way as those who turn to magic. Provoking the man would never be Einarr’s first choice of tactics, but under the circumstances it might be the best available.

The door to the cellar stood open. Einarr slid down the ladder, the smell of blood and burned flesh already assaulting his nose. Anger began to bubble in his stomach, and harder when he saw the body of the guard. That had been no fight: that was butchery.

Behind the body, the door to the vault also stood open. Inside, the brash man with the fiery sword strode straight towards the crimson fabric, his prize, at the center of the wards. The Shroud now snapped and cracked like a banner in high wind.

Einarr planted his feet at the threshold and drew Sinmora. He leveled his blade at the burly man. “That’s far enough.”

The thief stopped in his tracks. Then, slowly, ostentatiously casually, he rotated on one foot to face the door. He wore a smug grin like a mask. “Well. Look who’s back for more.”

“I can’t let you break that seal.”

“Like you can stop me?” He spat to the side and leered at Einarr. “You might as well just bend over and take your beating.”

“You’ll not find me so easy the second time. Now step out of that room and answer for yourself, you pig-sticker.”

“…Eh?”

“Tell me, on those cold winter nights, is it pigs or goats you turn to for comfort?”

“Say that again.”

“Did I mumble? You don’t like it, come out here and fight me properly.” The enclosed space of the cellar would level the playing field between them, at least. And with the other man hopefully not thinking clearly…

The black-haired man charged at Einarr, barrelling forward fast enough that Einarr had to skip backward to get out of the way. A quick sidestep took him out of the man’s path and left an opening. Sinmora slashed, and the man howled.

The thief gathered himself and took his sword in both hands, his eyes never leaving Einarr’s. “You’ll regret that.”

“Will I? Your swordplay makes me wonder if I wasn’t right. Has a woman ever graced your bed?”

With a wordless scream, the thief charged for Einarr yet again, his fiery blade unavoidable this time.

Einarr brought Sinmora and his shield up to guard. Sinmora seemed to pulse with power, but Einarr had no time to question that. He turned the blade aside with his shield boss, narrowly, and scrambled back around behind his opponent.

Which is why he saw the runes in the vault begin to glow with an eldritch blue light. Hel. That can’t be good. I need to finish this quickly

Sinmora pulsed a second time as Einarr brought her up to guard against the incoming blow. Last time, it was at about this point in the fight that the man battered down Einarr’s guard.

In the instant before their blades met, Einarr saw a flash of cold blue light from inside the vault. A whirlpool of energy formed with Sinmora at the center, drawing it in, and then it was the blade itself glowing with the cold energy of the runes.

Steel clashed against steel, and ice crystals formed all up and down the length of Sinmora’s blade. Einarr nearly dropped it from cold and surprise. That white, icy energy suddenly infusing Sinmora attacked the flames running along the length of the other blade. Extinguishing them.

A heartbeat later, it was over. The thief’s blade clattered to the floor, now evidently just an ordinary long sword, as its owner stared at it in disbelief.

Einarr stared at the blade in his hand, dumbfounded. That had never happened before. There would have been stories if it had.

The thief, no longer paying any attention to his prize in the vault, also stared dumbly at the weapons. With a strangled scream, he scrambled back towards the cellar entrance.


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7.10 – Wards

“Mind your step,” Melja warned as he entered the room.

The warning was well-taken. At first glance it seemed as though every surface of the chamber was covered in gently glowing runes in baffling configurations. Einarr stopped in his tracks, scanning the room.

Gradually, the overwhelming formations resolved themselves into more recognizeable, if not comprehensible, configurations. Concentric circles of text ringed the floor, but as he watched a path, almost like stepping stones, began to emerge.

Ah. So that’s how. Feeling more confident, Einarr stepped out onto the revealed path. Melja, several paces ahead, paused for Einarr to catch up as the Shroud continued to twitch as though in a breeze.

“This is amazing,” Einarr breathed as he caught up.

“This is necessary. The last time the Shroud was active, entire villages were consumed.”

“Why wasn’t it destroyed?”

“What makes you think they didn’t try?”

This just kept getting better. Einarr swallowed and turned his attention back to the web of wards they walked through. “So what, exactly, will we be doing here?”

“I will be checking the integrity of the keystone inscriptions. You will be adding your will to the force of the inscriptions.”

“Meaning…?”

“Touch where I tell you to, and turn your will to them, just as if you were activating one of your own inscriptions.”

“…Ah.” Einarr at least knew what that would look like. He wasn’t sure how much sense it actually made. Still, though, once they got started the work proceeded swiftly and Einarr soon discovered that what he’d thought to be senseless was actually base simplicity in practice.

Einarr’s stomach had begun to grumble by the time they left the elaborate chamber and the guard locked the door behind them.

“Don’t wait to let us know if anything changes,” Melja said.

The guard nodded seriously and said “of course,” even though the admonition was thoroughly unnecessary. As they walked back toward the village, Einarr began to feel truly silly about his fears.


He had nearly managed to forget his earlier trepidation as first days, and then weeks passed after the reinforcing of the wards.

When the alarm came, it was not from the temple but from the port town, more than a day’s hike away. A small boat had docked, and its lone occupant had demanded to know the route to the Shrouded Village. From the Headman, at the point of a flaming sword.

“This is bad,” Melja said when the messenger arrived. What followed was a scramble, near panic but not, as the alfr of the village prepared themselves to drive off this interloper.

They did not have long to wait: the questing man was bare hours behind the messenger. He rode up on a fine bay, its coat lathered and its eyes rolling wildly. The newcomer pulled up with such force that his poor horse half reared.

The man stared down imperiously at the villagers, Einarr and Melja at the fore. His eyes were as cold and blue as ice, but his wild mane of hair was black as night. “Is this the Shrouded Village?”

Melja’s voice was cold and just as proud when he answered, “It is.”

The black-haired man smirked. “Excellent. I have come to relieve you of it, by order of my master Virid, Chief of the Giants of Eldurgardr.”

“Tell your master that the alfs of the Shrouded Village sent you off with your tail between your legs, and that not even Wotan himself can order the thing’s release.”

The man laughed. “Excellent. I shall indeed tell him that the alfs fled before my Brannmerke when I present the Muspel Shroud to him.”

As the man spoke he dismounted and drew the long sword that hung at his hip. The blade burst into flames as it cleared its sheath – flames very similar to those which had been invoked in the garden several weeks prior.

“Put that thing away! You’ll kill us all,” Melja snapped.

At the same moment, Einarr was stepping forward, his hand on Sinmora’s hilt. “You’ll have to go through me, first,” he growled.

“Through… you?” He spat. “You are a nithing, a coward, a woman clad in her father’s castoffs. If you were a true man there’d be nothing left to plunder here.”

“Slanderer. Fool. If I were what you say, I’d not be here at all. Come, then, and we will prove who is man and who is nithing.” Einarr’s voice was steady and cool in the face of the other man’s insults. Sinmora cleared her shath with a gentle rasp and he readied his shield.

The villagers backed away swiftly from the impending clash. While all of them could fight at need, none of them were warriors in the way Einarr was. As swift as they were, though, it was only just fast enough.

The foreigner leapt to the fight like a wolf lunges for a kill. Reflexively Einarr brought his shield up: the blade clanged against the shield boss and flames licked its wooden edges.

Before the foreign hothead could pull back, Einarr cut forward. Sinmora bit into his opponent’s maille, but the other man only laughed.

Then the flaming sword arced through the air again, and again Einarr barely managed to bring his shield to bear. He felt the boss dent under the force of the blow, and smelled burning paint.

“So the woman has some guts after all! Make this interesting now.”

Einarr resettled his stance and spat. This was not looking good. He tried to feint right, looking for some opening he could use, some way past the man’s guard, and finding none. Sinmora was batted away. Again he tried and again recieved only mockery for his efforts. Finally the ice-eyed hothead rolled his eyes and spat again.

“Tcheh. Boring.”

The next blow shattered Einarr’s shield. The one after dented his helmet and set his ears to ringing as he dropped to his knees. “I think we know who the nithing is now, don’t we?”


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7.4 – Farewells

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

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

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

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

Some of the Matrons snorted, as though repressing laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To a woman the Matrons looked skeptical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it about that lad Arkja?”

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

“I would even if you hadn’t asked.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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7.3 – Elf Bargain

The old Matron hissed at his pronouncement.

“Well,” Ystävä said after a beat. “That is quite the conundrum you’re in then, isn’t it.”

“Yes, and made more difficult by the fact that the boy is either an idiot or hopelessly naive. If that’s the way you bargain, boy, I’ll wash my hands of you.”

“Now, now. I appreciate the candor – and I have reason to want to keep him alive, as well.”

“I can’t very well perform your morally unobjectionable favor if I’m dead, after all.”

Saetild shook her head, her expression that most terrifying of grandmotherly looks: disappointment. “So really what you’re saying is you’re bad at negotiation? And it’s okay this time because of the bad deal you got last time?”

“The alfr demand payment in kind, do they not? That was the way with the Oracle, and that is the way in the legends. In exchange for one favor, which will violate neither my nor my father’s conscience, he provided me with a key that allowed me to reach the treasure vault, which I would otherwise have been unable to do. I fail to see the problem.”

“Ah, you are young yet. You have no idea the horrors that can lurk in favors which appear morally innocuous,” Saetild said darkly.

Ystävä clicked his heels together where he stood. “Nevertheless,” he said, “it is still true that, for the time being, I have a vested interest in helping him stay alive. It is also true that I may have an answer for you.”

The alfr turned now to face Saetild directly. “I must speak with some old friends of mine. Within three nights’ time I will come and stand at the threshold of the Conclave, bearing my answer.”

“I shall ensure the Matrons are made aware – of all of it.”

Ystävä grinned then: it was a wild look, like the smile of a wolf or a wildcat. He bowed, again with a ridiculous flourish, lifted one foot high, and stepped to his left, vanishing back into his cut in the air.

Once he was gone, Einarr turned to Saetild. “Well. Since that’s the case -”

“I think it would be wisest if you returned to the Conclave anyway. We may yet find a rune master who will not require an elf-price of you, and it seems there is much else we could teach you, after all.”

“There is much yet to be done before we leave port, honored Matron. Father was not best pleased that I agreed to travel with you today.”

“I cannot stop you, but think. What are you actually going to be doing back in town if you go? Your father will not want your imput on proving those new sailors you found. They finished their repairs weeks ago, and have not yet started loading. At the Conclave, not only will you have access to all our wisdom, but you will know the moment the alfr returns.”

Einarr opened his mouth to protest, but could find nothing that did not seem childish in front of her reasoning. He closed it again with a click.

“Better. I am not accustomed to either explaining or repeating myself.”

“It would be the height of arrogance to turn down wisdom where it is offered, under the circumstances, I think.”

***

For two days, Einarr was kept busier than any apprentice at the Conclave. During the day he was set to reading beginner texts – the only ones consistently written in Imperial. He suspected Saetild had a strong hand in the selections, however: an improbable number were about bargains gone bad.

By the middle of the second day, the Matrons concluded with no small degree of annoyance that the elf’s contact would likely be the strongest candidate for a Cursebreaker in want of magical knowledge. There was, as Saetild explained it, not only a depth of learning to be had among the long-lived elves, but also a pattern to the matter – a pattern set in motion the first time Einarr and Ystävä had spoken.

All through the third day Einarr was restless. He would stare at the pages and see not words but meaningless loops and lines. To clear his head, he would step outside to chop wood – of which the Matrons approved – or run sword drills, of which they did not. Then, his muscles warm and his mind focused once more, he would sit down to read. Ten minutes later, the words would once again swirl into meaninglessness.

By noon, no-one even tried to get him back to the manuscripts. And so, in the height of midafternoon, he was the first to spot the elf’s return.

It was a subtle thing. Einarr set up one log to be split, and the forest’s edge was empty. He raised the maul and split the log into eight. Wiping his forehead, he looked up again.

Standing just beyond the edge of the wood, in brown trousers and a flamboyantly green tunic, a leather vest belted about his middle, a golden-haired twig of an alfr stood staring expectantly in.

The knot of tension that had been driving Einarr all day loosed and he rolled his shoulders. Finally. He picked up another log to split as one of the apprentice Singers hurried out to see what the Whisperer of the Woods might possibly want.

Ystävä sent the young woman running back with a word and a patronising smile. Some minutes later, the full circle of Matrons came bustling out of the Conclave Hall, many of them settling shawls on their shoulders still. Einarr fell in behind them.

The elf waited until they were all gathered, peering at faces until he was satisfied and giving an “ah!” of recognition when he saw Einarr among them. “I have good news. The village I remembered still exists, and they are happy to take on a Cursebreaker. May we speak inside, or must I give their terms standing here like a beggar?”


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7.2 – Seeking

On the morrow, with only a sip of ale to counter the festivities of the night before and while his father proved new recruits, Einarr followed Saetild, the friendliest and least tree-like of the Matrons, down the path through the Whispering Woods. As lovely as the wood first appeared, Einarr felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle as they stepped into its shade.

“We’re not likely to run into your little elven ‘friend’ on the path today, are we?”

Saetild grimaced, her grandmotherly face puckering like a prune. “So you’ve met him, then.”

“He introduced himself, yes.”

“Well, the good news is he’s unlikely to trouble you on the path so long as you’re with one of us. The bad news is, he’s one of a very few beings who might know a suitable teacher for you. My sisters and I may well need to invite him in for a time.”

“I’m afraid I already owe him a favor…”

“Then one more should have little impact. Once you’ve dealt with an alfr once, future dealings become easier.”

Einarr wasn’t certain he believed that, having dealt with both the Oracle and the mysterious ‘Ystävä,’ but he supposed it was possible. Saetild, in the way of all grandmothers, kept up a running monologue as they walked. Einarr half tuned her out: it seemed to be largely a recounting of what had happened in East Port while he had been questing, most of which he’d already heard about, interspersed with gossip from the Conclave that might have made sense to Runa but, to his mind, was largely silliness.

“Runa also thought to teach me something of the flow of story – seemed to think that might also improve my chances,” he mused in what felt like an appropriate pause in the flow. Anything to get her to speak sense.

The statement was met with a trill of tinkling laughter. “That girl. If you seemed to have any trouble understanding others’ motives, I might agree. But from everything I’ve seen and heard, you’re good with people. I suspect you already know everything relevant story could teach you.”

Maybe, maybe not. “Did Runa tell you how she dealt with the first revenant we encountered on the Isle of the Forgotten?”

“Oh, the Päronskaft silliness? I suppose there is that, but that comes of being well-versed in the tales themselves, not any deep understanding of how they go together. I suppose someone should look into how she got such old manuscripts…”

Something in the way Saetild said ‘someone’ made Einarr raise an eyebrow. “You added them to her pile, didn’t you?”

The Matron smiled slyly but did not answer.

“How did you know she’d be coming along, let alone that she’d need something so arcane?”

Another sly smile was the only answer he received. Einarr shrugged and Saetild resumed her narration, as though the interruption had never happened. The prickly feeling of being watched returned: something was off this morning.

A peculiar stillness fell around them, and Einarr stopped in his tracks. Saetild, too, stopped where she stood, her plump figure leaning into her walking staff as she trailed off.

“You might as well show yourself, Ystävä. I know you’re here.”

The fair figure of the alfr seemed to step out of a cut in the air ahead of them, and the golden-haired figure offered a theatrical bow. “Did I prove myself sufficiently last time, then? Do I hear my name cross your lips?”

“You canny old fox! This path is protected from your kind: begone!”

“Ah, lady, lady. I was invited. Didn’t you hear him?”

“He never asked you onto the path, and yet there you stand.” She raised her staff threateningly towards the elf, who held up his hands in warding but made no other move.

“I am not on the path at all, dear lady, but above it, I think you will see.”

Einarr cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I have little patience for these sorts of games today, Ystävä. I still don’t believe that’s you’re name, but I did call you by it. And it’s true, your gift was necessary to complete our quest.” He looked at Saetild now. “I thought you said he wouldn’t trouble us with you around.”

“He shouldn’t be able to. This will be raised with the Conclave on my return, you can be sure of it.”

Ystävä, though, grinned, and slipped cat-like around to drape his arms about Saetild’s shoulders. “And am I? Troubling you, that is.”

Saetild jabbed the end of her stick into the elf’s shins. He backed off.

Einarr hummed. “Not yet, I suppose. Why are you here?”

“Well, I live here, in the main.” The mischievous elf waited a long moment before grinning at Einarr’s look of consternation. “Curiosity, mostly. I’d heard that the young Cursebreaker was returned, after what the humans thought was a long time, and wished to see the fruits of my handiwork.”

“All right. You’ve seen them. And now we should be pressing on for the Conclave.”

“The Conclave, where I’ve just heard I’m to be invited to advise the Matrons? I’m here now: why not save us all the trouble of formal audiences and invitations and I can walk along with you, and you can tell me what you want?”

“Because in the Conclave there are protections against your trickery,” Saetild glowered.

“Yes. Namely the other Matrons. Such a stuffy bunch, I have never seen. You’d think they’d never been apprentices themselves.”

Einarr looked down at Saetild, who was glaring ostentatiously at the alfr, and sighed. “Is there any actual harm in it?”

The old woman sighed dramatically. “No. There’s no actual harm in him at all, that we can tell. He’s just a pest who likes to waylay travelers and lead astray apprentices for his own amusement.”

Before Ystävä could put on a show of being offended, Einarr opened his mouth. “Good. I need someone to teach me the reading of runes, or my Calling will be the death of me.”


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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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