Tag: Song Magic

6.18 – Troll

With a thud as hard as one of the boulders he had been tossing, the troll whose presence Einarr had suspected showed himself. A hideous specimen even for the breed, he glared at them with red eyes from beneath a heavy brow. The stench of unwashed flesh assaulted Einarr’s nose.

In that same moment, the great stupid man-beast threw back its head and roared. It swung its club overhead so fast it whistled. Einarr drew Sinmora and hefted his shield: he had hoped to avoid this, but not really expected to. Erik and Jorir, too, had set themselves for battle, even as Runa hopped backward a few paces.

The troll charged straight down the middle and brought its thigh-size club down. Jorir flung himself to the side. The impact of the club against the ground sent gravel flying. Jorir rolled to his feet, though, apparently unharmed, shook his head, and dashed in towards the troll’s feet.

Erik had to dodge a backhanded sweep as the troll brought its club back up, but that too was an opportunity. He rose from under the swing of the troll’s arm and chopped at its elbow. Blood welled, and the creature roared, but it seemed Erik’s strike had been just off the mark: it could still use its arm.

Einarr moved in, then, as the creature tried to focus on Erik and avoid Jorir’s harrying of its legs at the same time. Its back was wide open, and Sinmora cut a broad swath across it. He had to be missing something, though: the troll that had flushed them out by throwing rocks would have to be a clever specimen, and this one was not fighting like he had any brains at all.

As though on cue, the gash that he had just opened along its back began to knit itself together. Einarr bit off a curse: how were they supposed to drop the thing, or even drive it off, if they couldn’t hurt it?

Is that why it fought stupidly? Because it had never needed to learn to fight well? That gave him the sliver of an idea. Einarr gave up on large, sweeping cuts: he had Erik for those, and Jorir to keep it on its toes. The Vidofnings would be the wolf pack, and the troll a stag, and soon enough the sun would rise or the troll would decide they were too much trouble.

Erik began to circle the creature, hacking at the arm that held the club at every chance. It wasn’t long before he, too, realized that he wasn’t actually hurting the beast – or not enough to matter.

“Keep going!” Einarr called as he hacked down at the thickly muscled neck. “Time is on our side!” Especially if Runa…

Yes. She was beginning to Sing, the same Song she had used on the boat early that spring to keep his strength up. The same song she had bottled to get him and Erik and Tyr through the storm around Svartlauf. So long as her voice held out, they could hold.

So long as Runa had stayed silent, however, the troll had been content to focus its ministrations on the three warriors among them. Now that the voice of a Singer rang over the fields, Einarr realized his error.

With a mighty kick, the troll sent Jorir tumbling away from its knees. The dwarf rolled to his feet almost immediately, but even in the dark Einarr could tell he looked winded.

Einarr moved in to strike at the creature’s hideous face right as it began to swing its club in a full circle around it. He felt the wind driven from his lungs even as he saw Erik be bowled aside like firewood.

And then the troll charged at Runa.

Einarr found sufficient air to dash to his feet. He was not aware of crossing the distance, only that one moment he saw the troll’s aim – Runa – and the next he was there, between the avalanche of beast-man and his bride.

He set his feet and braced his shield for the coming blow. “Over my dead body.”

The troll’s momentum bowled it into Einarr and pushed him back a distance of several paces – right through where Runa would have been, if she had not had the good sense to get out of the way.

“Music lady need,” the troll grunted. Einarr rocked back on his heels, surprised.

“You can’t have her.” He held Sinmora ready, even though he knew there was little he could do with his blade.

“Music lady need. Fix head-bad. Music lady take.”

Einarr rolled his eyes and hoped Runa would forgive him what he was about to say. For all he knew, ‘fix head-bad’ would still mean ‘throw in stew.’ “‘Music lady’ woman mine. ‘Music lady’ no take.”

“Einarr… perhaps we should go with it.”

“You want to end up in a cookpot?”

“I didn’t say we trust it. But have you ever heard of a troll seeking help before?”

Einarr shook his head.

“Then might I suggest this is your Cursebreaker calling, bringing us a new puzzle to solve and maybe even a new friend to make?”

“Yes! Yes! Music lady come, fix head-bad, troll no hurt music lady friends.”

“There are hours left until daybreak. What have we got to lose, really?”

Einarr had a few ideas. Chief among them, their heads. But this, right here, was not a fight they could win now. Reluctantly, he nodded. “Fine. We’ll see what it wants.”

He turned to their erstwhile opponent. “Troll. Music lady will come. Rest of us, also come. Troll no harm music lady or warriors?”

“Troll no harm. Troll-friend now. High honor.”

Einarr was sure it was. To the trolls, anyway. As the creature lumbered happily off toward the ridge, he rubbed his forehead. If Runa was wrong, this could get very bad, very quickly.

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6.14 – Aftermath

Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.

“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.

Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.

Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”

“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”

Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”

“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.

Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”

“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”

“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.

Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”

Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”

Jorir harrumphed.

“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”

“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”

Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”

“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”


The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.

Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?

Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.

Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.

When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.

The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.

The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”

Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”

“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.

Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”

“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”

“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”

“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”

Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”

She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”

“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.

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6.12 – Wolves

The exposed slate of the cave walls shone white in the moonlight, a gaping maw of blackness beneath daring them to enter the Woodsman’s lair. Einarr whistled through his teeth – one long, one short, one long again. Rustling in the underbrush signaled his companions’ arrival, and so Einarr pointed ahead at what Runa had found. “Perhaps we haven’t entirely lost fortune’s favor?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Jorir grumbled. “How do we know he’s not at home?”

Runa kept her voice to a whisper when she snapped back. “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that even if we’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon.”

“Think you’re up for climbing a tree, Irding?” Einarr was thinking aloud more than anything. “We’ll need a lookout anyway.”

“Think I’ll manage somehow. I don’t suppose I could get another pinch of willow bark to chew?”

With a harrumph, Jorir tossed him a small pouch. “Don’t use any more than you have to. That’s all I have.”

Irding hummed even as he helped himself to a pinch of the pain-killer. “Right. Up I go.”

The forest around them began to stir as Irding, injured and in pain, rather loudly scaled a nearby oak. There was no time to waste. “Runa. Let’s go.”

Runa was moving before he finished speaking, slipping out into the clearing as silently as she had moved the night they had attempted to elope. Einarr thought it best not to question why she was so skillful at sneaking. Knowing what he already did of her as a child suggested an answer, anyway. He followed close behind, and Erik just a pace behind him.

No sooner had they crossed the threshold from shadow to moonlight than the forest behind them came violently to life once more. Irding wrapped arms and legs about the trunk as the tree began to shake, although it did not seem able to do more than that. Grimacing, Irding shimmied up to hug the tree at a good height to see around.

On the ground, Runa had in hand the small chisel and hammer that Auna had provided her. She knelt beside the bare slate at the entrance to the cave and began to chant under her breath even before she brought the tools to bear. Einarr, Jorir, and Erik took up positions around her, weapons drawn.

No sooner had the chisel clinked against the stone than the first wave hit. The grass grabbed at their boots, even as flocks of birds dived at them. That they were pecking at Einarr’s head and not clawing with talons told him they were not owls, but that was cold comfort here. He used Sinmora not as a sword but as a swatter, waving it about to keep the creatures off his head. The birds did, slowly, die at their feet, but none of them kept a kill count.

Runa’s voice grew to be audible over the din of screeching birds, and the steady beat of the chisel kept time.

Einarr slashed through a cloud of the Woodsman’s possessed minions, knocking one from the air and guarding his head from the rest. In the momentary gap caused by Sinmora’s passing, he saw silver-furred wolves stalking out of the wood from all directions.

The wolf directly in front of him had antlers. It snarled, showing larger than average teeth.

Einarr stilled, his attention fully on the new threat. The birds flew off as though dismissed.

The wolves prowled forward. Except for the one, they all appeared to be normal. Einarr met the glare of the antlered wolf from under his lowered brow and raised Sinmora. He would claim this challenge.

The wolf snarled again and lunged forward. In a heartbeat the antlered wolf closed the distance, and Einarr frantically swung Sinmora down to turn its bite. No natural wolf could be so quick: a gift of the leshy, perhaps?

Einarr could spare no more time on consideration. The antlered wolf snapped at his legs again and again, with odd twists of the head as he dashed back out to strike again. Trying to trip Einarr with the horns. Sinmora cut its hide, but shallowly.

Runa still chanted over the nearly inaudible beat of her hammer and chisel.

One of the wolves tried to slip between Einarr and Jorir while Einarr focused on the leader. As though they were of one mind, prince and dwarf pivoted. Sinmora slipped between its ribs even as Jorir’s axe laid open its belly.

The kill came with a price, however. The pack leader could not let such an opportunity pass. Einarr howled as its jaws closed about his calf and pulled.

Einarr did not go down. He yanked his sword out of the dead wolf and hacked at the pack leader, but already the creature had hopped backwards, licking Einarr’s blood off its chops.

Another wolf tried for his other leg. Einarr twisted out of the way and brought his blade down to cut across the side of its neck.

The pack leader took his attention from Einarr long enough to growl at the wounded interloper. The opportunist put its tail between its legs and hurried off to join the assault on Erik.

The big man was, of all things, laughing. Perhaps after their encounter with the fimbulvulf that spring, a pack of normal wolves seemed less threatening? Einarr shook his head and refocused on the pack leader. To either side of him, Jorir and Erik fought off the ordinary beasts, their task made easier by the wolves’ focus on Runa in the center.

Arrows flew from above, as carefully placed as Irding could manage. Still Einarr’s focus was on the pack leader. It, too, stood back now, evaluating its opponent much like Einarr evaluated it.

Runa’s chanting grew louder and faster. Did that mean she was almost done? Einarr settled back into his stance, his eyes locked on the red ones of the antlered wolf.

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6.10 – Grasping Branches

As though on cue, the forest itself seemed to come alive around them. The grass and the twining berry vines that trailed along the ground reached up to grab his boots, and the bushes and brambles around the clearing began to visibly grow into a wall. So much for not attracting attention.

“Run!” Einarr suited words to action and sprinted for the far edge, around the bear, hoping the others would be quick enough to outpace the rapidly coiling plant matter. Runa he had no fear for, as she still sat on his shoulders.

Erik practically stepped on his heels, he was so close, and Jorir was right behind him. There came a crash of breaking branches and a curse from Irding. Einarr turned in time to see the man’s axe raised high.

“Irding, no!”

It was too late. The iron axe blade chopped down into the vegetation and Irding, his breathing heavy, surged forward.

The branches redoubled their growth, seeming to reach after him like grasping claws. Einarr had not been certain until that moment that using a weapon would draw any more attention than wrestling the bear-creature had, but here was the proof. The forest around them erupted into raucous chaos. Crows cawed from all around. Wolves howled. Bears roared – although not from just behind them, thankfully. And even over all of that, Einarr would swear he could hear the plants that hindered them growing.

Irding’s face was pale and pained, and his breath came heavy. Einarr frowned.

“Erik. Carry him.”

The big man grunted, and without waiting for Irding’s inevitable refusal scooped his son up over his shoulder like a sack of cabbages.

Irding gasped in pain, but they had no time to resettle. “Bear with it,” Erik grumbled, and they were off again.

Einarr had no idea how long they’d run before the grasping vines slackened their pace, as though unsure of where their quarry had gone after such a long chase. Einarr had no doubt the plants had been hunting them. Had anything else? He shook his head as he slowed to a jog, and then a stop. “I think we’re clear.”

“For now, maybe,” Runa said. “Are you ever going to put me down?”

Einarr dropped to one knee and unwrapped his arm from around her legs. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten he was carrying her – the weight of another human on his shoulder was not something he could forget while running – but this was the first moment they’d had to pause and catch their breath. Runa trailed her fingers along the line of his jaw as she slipped gracefully down. It was thanks enough, so far as he was concerned.

Erik raised a hand to his forehead and looked around. Irding appeared to have passed out during the run. “Does anyone happen to know if we were even running in the right direction?”

Einarr was reasonably certain they had started out in the right direction, at least, but once they were moving his biggest concern had been keeping them out of the clutches of the forest. He shook his head. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t tell you if we’re any closer to the lair or nay,” Jorir said, pointing off to their right. “But I’m pretty sure we need to head that way.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow before turning to look. “You mean because it looks the darkest and most impassable?”

Jorir nodded. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t it?”

Erik hummed, stepping over to a moderately clear space on the forest floor. “Maybe so. But there’s something else we need to take care of first.”

Kneeling, Erik slung his unconscious son down as gently as he could. “Going to need all of us to keep the lady safe, I think.”

Einarr felt an irrational stab of annoyance. If Irding hadn’t drawn his axe, they would not have been put to flight, and he had only been slowed because he had fought poorly, earlier. Frowning, he shook off such dark thoughts. “Not like none of us have ever been reckless before, right? Runa, will you see what you can do for him?”

She hummed and moved to kneel beside the injured man. With practiced motions – more practiced than he had expected, honestly – she examined his chest under the battered maille. A few minutes later, she shook her head.

“You were right. He broke a rib when the bear was tossing him around like a rag doll.” She cast an accusatory look at Erik. “If you’d been able to carry him more gently, I might be able to Sing him back into the fight, but its aggravated now. We’ll need to set it, and if we cannot let it heal naturally it will weaken him.”

Erik shook his head. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself, my boy.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. “How’s your leg?”

Erik harrumphed but said nothing. He was spared further commentary when Irding awakened with a gasp and a groan.

“Good. Ye’re awake,” Jorir grumbled. “At least now you can look after yerself.”

“Can you set the break?” Einarr thought the chances were good Irding would have to do a fair bit more than hide in a tree to look after himself once Runa began her part. Runa and Jorir both shook their heads.

“Not without bringing the wrath o’ the wood back down on our heads, I think.”

Irding sat up with a grimace and frowned down at the maille now laying on the forest floor beside him. “Surely there must be some way. A sore chest never stopped me before…”

An idea struck Einarr. “Belts. Rethread your weapons on your belts, and we’ll use our baldrics. That should help, shouldn’t it?”

Runa hesitated, thinking it over, before nodding. “It should work. Take off your shirt, Irding.”

“Quickly now. If there were wolves on our trail, we won’t know it until we’re surrounded. The sooner we’re moving, the better.”

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6.9 – Bear

A roar reverberated through the trees as the creature caught the scent of humans. Its unnatural red eyes started directly at Einarr and its lip curled up in a snarl, revealing massive fangs.

Einarr slid Sinmora from her sheath. Avoiding the bear was not an option, not now that it has seen them, not with the look of madness in its eyes.

Erik and Irding moved up to flank him, their axes in hand. Good.

Runa stepped up behind them then, and the sweet soprano of her voice carried past them. It was not the fury-song, however. Instead, she sang to end the rage – not for them but for the bear.

It swayed on its feet as though drunk, Runa’s song warring with some other influence. The Woodsman’s, perhaps?

The horned creature began to look drowsy, and Einarr nudged Irding to begin circling around.

Immediately the possessed bear’s eyes snapped to follow the movement, wide awake again. The three men froze, and Runa’s song grew louder and more insistent. Einarr’s mind was clear, his body relaxed, but even his eyelids began to feel heavy.

Erik sighed loudly, replacing his axe in its loop on its belt, and rolled his shoulders back to limber them. “We don’t have time for this.”

“I don’t think so, old man.” Irding cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got this one.”

Erik opened his mouth as though to protest, but evidently thought better of it. He folded his arms as his son readied himself.

With a primal yell, Irding charged into the clearing as though into a glíma ring. The bear lowered its head, ready to toss its assailant with its massive stag horns. Irding clinched with the beast, grabbing hold by those selfsame horns. Then followed a test of strength, with each grappler attempting to throw the other.

Had Irding wrestled a stag soothed by the song magic, he might have had a chance. A bear with antlers, however, was still fundamentally a bear – song magic or no. The creature twisted its head down and Irding lost his footing. Only for a moment, but that was all it took for one massive paw to send him flying for the edge of the clearing.

Einarr nearly started forward to help, but a cry from Runa kept him from it. The foliage writhed and twisted towards her feet, and even with Jorir’s help it was all he could do to keep her free of the bramble and focused on the song.

Erik took half a step forward, but Irding was not to be defeated so easily. Already he was rising from the ground, beating the needles from his trousers as he watched the bear, waiting for an opening. When the bear stumbled again, he rushed in low.

Having failed to best the creature locked with its antlers, Irding sought to get in close for the second round. Erik’s jaw dropped as he realized what his son – correction, his idiot son – intended, but it was too late to stop him.

The bear caught Irding in a hook with its front paw and tossed him up in the air, rearing up to continue playing with its prey. When the creature had reached its full height, just before it could slam Irding back down to the ground with another swipe of its paw, Erik’s shoulder impacted with its belly.

The bear looked down, somewhat perplexed by the not-furry creature that now had its arms wrapped around the bear’s middle.

Irding tumbled to the ground, only a little more gracefully than a sack of onions.

The bear roared again, giving off the impression of a shrug, but before it could wrap its forelegs about Erik’s back the big man had slipped out from beneath the creature’s grasp.

Irding rose to his feet unsteadily, but the strange creature’s attention was still on Erik even as it fought off the effects of Runa’s song.

A note of panic was rising in Runa’s voice. Certain, now, that the other two had the creature well in hand, Einarr turned his full attention to the vines that crept around their feet. Tendrils had begun to grip the leg of his trousers, and Jorir was tearing at several that had begun to wrap about Runa’s legs. And this is when the Woodsman isn’t paying attention?

A quick yank had his feet free again, and he joined Jorir in tearing at the vines that converged on Runa. Einarr questioned, at this point, whether her singing was doing any good, but judging by her expression something was actively fighting her attempt to put the Woodsman’s servant to sleep.

The bear gave a roar, and Einarr risked another glance over at the other fight. Irding had locked its horns in the clinch again, but this time his father lay on the creature’s back in a very familiar posture to Einarr: It was much the same move he had used to knock out the fimbulvulf on Svartlauf. The bear, between the lack of air to breathe and the song designed to induce relaxation, was losing the fight to remain conscious.

With a nod, Einarr turned back to his still-singing fiancée and pursed his lips in thought. Nodding, he scooped Runa up by the waist and set her on his shoulders. Vines trailed from her skirt, but of the ordinary kind that did not writhe under their own power. He kicked his feet to keep the vines from getting a grip on his own legs and moved toward the clearing where Erik and Irding were lowering the now-unconscious bear creature to the forest floor.

Irding looked pale, and he breathed heavily, but he insisted to Einarr and Erik both that the was fine.

“If you say so…” Einarr did not bother to hide his dubiousness, but Irding waved him off again.

Before they set off into the forest again, he turned to Runa. “Keep an eye on him, would you? I suspect he’s broken something.”

Runa nodded. “Of course. But not, I think, a something the herb-witches or apothecaries would be able to do much about.”

Einarr grumbled. “Time to move on, people, before we draw any more attention to ourselves.”

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5.26 – Poultice

Runa’s song had become little more than a buzzing in the background of Jorir’s attention as he bruised the honeyed leaves in the mortar and prayed the other two would hurry up.

At least Lord Einarr didn’t seem to be growing any worse now. Given enough time, the song magic could probably handle it. Only, they didn’t have that much time. Einarr needed to be back on his feet before they approached their goal, or they might not make it out. At least, Jorir didn’t think any of them would be willing to leave him behind. Even Irding, though new to the crew, seemed to have taken to the Captain’s son.

“Feathery leaves and flat flower clusters, right?”

Jorir nearly jumped out of his skin at Erik’s sudden voice behind him. “Right.”

“There aren’t any white ones, but I found some that are kind of pink?”

He turned around to see the big man holding a pot with the flower he spoke of and rolled his eyes. “Yes, also yarrow. Let me clip some before you take it back. Irding should be looking for the touch-me-nots. …See if you can’t find some woundwort, while you’re at it.”

Finally. That was two of the three plants he needed. If the wound were less grievous, he might try to poultice with just these elements. Under the circumstances, though, Jorir thought it better to be safe. He pinched the yarrow stems and scraped the tiny leaves into his mortar and returned to mixing.

Minutes passed, and still no touch-me-nots. Jorir looked up from his task in irritation. He didn’t think he could wait much longer to apply the poultice – both for the potency of the herbs and the state of his Lord.

On the far side of the room, Erik and Irding appeared to be arguing at a whisper over two plants with yellow flowers – neither of which looked like a touch-me-not from this distance. With a growl, he stood up and hefted the heavy mortar.

“What is taking you so long,” he growled as he approached the two. “…Are you seriously arguing over a buttercup and a goldenrod? Neither of those are what I sent you for.”

Irding frowned down at the goldenrod he had in his hand. “Not a whole lot of yellow flowers out here.”

How does anyone not know a touch-me-not? “It looks like a drinking horn with a wide mouth. Next thing I know you’ll bring me wolfsbane for woundwort!”

“Wolfsbane I know,” Erik rumbled.

“That’s something, anyway. Hurry it up a bit: the longer this takes, the worse it gets.” Jorir turned and walked back towards his Lord on his sickbed.

“So… what does woundwort look like?” Irding’s voice carried across the floor.

Jorir could not suppress a growl. “It’s a small plant. Little cones at the top covered with purple petals. Just bring the whole pot, if you find it.”

Sounds of affirmation followed Jorir back to the center of the room, but he was not hopeful. Oh, they would try, certainly, but he rated their odds as low. He returned to pulverizing the concoction with somewhat more force than before.

“Ha!” Erik’s voice boomed across the room. Not many moments later, a pair of touch-me-not stems appeared on the floor at Jorir’s knee. “Those, yes?”

“Yes, those.” Jorir breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you. Any luck on the woundwort?”

“Still working on it.”

“Fine. This will do for the moment, but keep looking.” He plucked the flowers off the stems and tossed them into the mortar.

Runa was beginning to look tired, but the paste was finally ready. Jorir turned to his patient: Einarr still looked waxy, and his breathing was labored, but finally Jorir had something to help the body along. He met Runa’s eye. “I’m going to untie his bandage now.”

She nodded, and Jorir’s fingers moved to the sodden knot of cloth that had kept Einarr from bleeding out long before. He tugged once, then twice, and all he elicited was a groan from the patient. Shaking his head, Jorir took his eating knife from his belt and sliced the strip near the knot.

Once the cut was uncovered, and it was a long one, blood welled slowly up. Too slowly for Jorir’s liking, but at least it still flowed. He began to dab the sticky mixture across the red gash in his Lord’s side. As he went, the redness faded from the skin almost immediately, as mind and body went to work knitting the flesh with fresh resources. It was incredible healing, even considering the song at work.

Jorir had treated perhaps half the wound when Irding appeared at his side. “Is this the woundwort?”

The dwarf glanced up at the young man. “That’s a thistle.”

“Why would an herb-witch want thistle?” Irding’s confusion was audible as he wandered back into the room in search of the otherwise common herb. Jorir allowed himself a smirk: it would be a good question, in an ordinary herb-witch’s hut. Here, though, where they were obviously being tested?

Jorir neared the end of the gash and his paste at once. Soon he would have to test whether that stack of muslin was suitable for bandages: he hoped it was. The tester seemed to have given them the materials they would need, so long as they could make use of them.

Einarr groaned again and his eyelids fluttered. Jorir nodded as he dabbed on the last of the paste: remarkable vitality on that one, and a good head on his shoulders. A worthy lord, even if perhaps a little fragile. He laid one of the pieces of muslin down across the wound. As he pressed it into place, a white glow caught his eye. What might that be… a feather? He shook his head. Time enough to ask Einarr about it after he was bandaged.

With a groan, Einarr’s eyes finally opened. “Uh? Hello. Would someone mind telling me why I have straw stabbing into my back?”

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5.2 – Wise Women’s Table

“Please, be seated. There’ll be no leaving until morning at the earliest anyway.” The old matron moved deftly to the side of the door and began shooing their party in, towards the long table with its pot of stew – rabbit, if Einarr’s nose didn’t lie. He allowed himself to be swept into the Hall and to a place at the table.

There were nine of them, and eight empty bowls set along the table. Given that Runa had been sent to stand at the back with the servants, that accounted for all of them. Einarr had never known Singers to be able to divine: perhaps there was something to the rumors about the wood? Einarr shrugged and settled on the rough wooden bench.

“Now. I know why our wayward apprentice has come, although she shall be expected to explain her tardiness.” The crone spoke as she settled herself back into the seat at the head of the table. “I was surprised to hear that the daughter of Fjori was returning to the Hall. Is the sun troubling you again?”

“Not at all, Amma.” Reki was near breathless, as though she actually were a child addressing her grandmother. “During a recent raid, we found a chest filled with instruments. I convinced my Captain that the Conclave might wish to buy them.”

The old crone snorted. “Buy them. Feh. We shall have a look in the morning.”

“Thank you, Amma.” In the worst case scenario, they would be demanded as hospitality gifts. For all that the Vidofnir needed the coin, Einarr would be hard pressed to see that as a loss if the Matrons were able to answer his questions.

One of the other old women at the table – more like a willow in stature than like the oak of her superior’s mein – was staring at them as they settled. Einarr stared a challenge back at the woman’s face, but she appeared not to notice. Once everyone was seated, she waved imperiously towards the back of the room.

A young woman in plain white wool stepped hurriedly forward.

“Add some extra nutmeg to tonight’s mulling, and a good amount of angelica.”

The girl curtsied and hurried out the back of the hall.

Reki’s brows drew down in concern. Evidently that combination meant something to her. “Is something amiss?”

“Yes, child,” said the willowy crone, her voice somewhat less desiccated than her oaken superior. “There is corruption at work among you… on all of you save the apprentice and him.” She pointed at Trabbi.

“Corruption?” Barri stood, shock warring with offense on his face.

“Sit down, Barri.” Einarr could share neither emotion with the man, and even he heard weariness in his voice. “Think. Did any of us feel entirely well after that last battle?”

“The Heir of Raen knows of what I speak?” The willowy crone’s surprise sounded genuine.

“Unfortunately. Of those of us here, the Lady Runa and Trabbi are the only two who did not come into direct contact with the black blood of those monsters. I know I, for one, felt ill following that battle, and it had nothing to do with fatigue.”

Sivid was nodding along. “I, too, felt strangely ill, although I put it down to my own imagination.”

“But tell me,” Einarr sat forward, leaning over his bowl and absently reaching for the stew ladle. “How could you tell?”

All six of the crones at the head of the table burst into laughter at the question, the sound of rustling leaves and water burbling over stone. “We are called the Matrons of Song, are we not?” Asked the oaken leader of the crones.

When Einarr nodded, she continued. “The world sings to us, and in this way we can see your plight… Cursebreaker.”

Einarr wanted to swear. On top of everything else, she could see that?

The willowy crone cackled. “And why wouldn’t we? These herbs I’ve ordered, they will hold the corruption at bay – for a time.”

The headmistress cleared her throat. “Such matters are better discussed in the bright light of day. For now, there is stew and bread aplenty, and berries besides. Eat and be welcome.”

A third Matron, this one plump and warm like the grandmother Einarr remembered, clapped her hands and three of the young women in the back of the hall stepped off to the side and began to play.

It was a quiet, contemplative tune, and before Einarr had finished half his stew he felt the tension of the summer’s journey begin to melt away. By the time they had finished their meal, as they all sat around sipping at the spiced mead, every last one of them was fighting an exhausted sleep.

“Rest, children.” Through half-lidded eyes, Einarr saw the oaken crone standing over them. “Rest now, for on the morrow there is work to be done.”


Einarr awoke with a start to the clear light of early morning filtering in through the door of an unfamiliar hall. He patted his chest to find that he had been stripped down to just a tunic and breeches. Horror rising in his gullet, he blinked to clear his vision and cast his eyes around.

There, at the foot of the mat he’d been lain in, the rest of his clothes were folded neatly with Sinmora laid across the top. So why did they put us all to sleep, then?

He snatched up his clean-smelling clothes and began to dress. Somehow there was no longer even a hint of darkening from the blood that had nearly covered him in the battle against the cultists.

…Purification of the corruption. Of course. He exhaled loudly and finished dressing, a smile now tugging at the corners of his mouth. They were not some Jarl’s hall full of warriors, whose only recourse against monsters such as those was bloodshed: they were wise women, and the Conclave of Singers could be counted on to act for the benefit of the Clans. When he snugged Sinmora’s belt about his waist and strode out into the daylight, a jaunty tune popped into his head and he began to whistle.

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4.24 – Fire Rain

Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.


Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.


The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:


Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.


As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.


What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…


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4.21 – Red Vengeance

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.


Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.

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4.20 – Respite

Einarr clashed and clashed again with the Grendeling blocking his path – a creature no bigger than he himself was. He should not have been having so much trouble with this one, but with each bind he found himself another half-step closer to the treacherous drop between their two ships, the water choppy and frothed from the storm the Grendel carried on its back. He ground his teeth together, knowing he should be better than this.

An arrow whistled through the air from the deck of the Vidofnir and those still waiting to board. Einarr dodged to the side and his opponent turned with him – right into the path of the onrushing arrow. Einarr glanced back and saw Arnskar lowering his bow: he raised Sinmora’s hilt to his forehead in thanks before dashing back into the melee.

The Grendelings had not been so difficult to fight last fall, and some corner of Einarr’s brain worried over the question of why even as he joined battle with a third of their number. Whatever the reason, the Vidofnings could not afford to prolong this fight – not with three more ships pursuing their ally.

Another surge of Vidofnings thudded down onto the deck, and Einarr rode their wave back up to his father’s side.

Stigander seemed less tired than Einarr was, at any rate. For the fighting earlier, followed by their mad rowing, to have worn him down should not be surprising – but the weakness still rankled. He lashed forward with Sinmora, glad to be back in the thick of things where he could vent his spleen, and a Grendeling stumbled backwards, the arm nearly cut through at the elbow. Tveir.

“Regretting-” Stigander drove his blade deep into the neckline of a Grendeling’s maille. “Telling them not to Sing?”

“Little bit.” Einarr puffed, cutting at a third enemy even as he ducked the blade of a fourth.

“You’re exhausted. Fall back. Join the bodyguard, tell the ladies they’re covered to Sing if they choose.” Even distracted, Stigander was parrying the blows of three separate Grendelings. He kicked forward and one of the creatures’ knee bent backward.

“Father, I-”

“That was an order, son.” His tone brooked no opposition.

“Yes, sir.” Einarr seethed, although if that Stigander saw him flagging so easily he might be in worse shape than he thought. Einarr swept Sinmora in a wide arc and her blade left only shallow cuts in his targets. He stepped back from the space thus cleared. A heartbeat later, the hole he left was filled by Erik.

“Give your lady five minutes,” the big man laughed. “You’ll be back afore the fight’s over.”


Einarr had nearly reached the cluster of men surrounding Reki and Runa before the wave of fatigue truly hit him. He could not quite keep from staggering, although he covered it as best he could.

“Captain Stigander has rescinded the order preventing our Singers from joining battle,” he announced, before shouldering his way in between Bollinn and Jorir. He was, in fact, surprised to see the dwarf back here – until he realized that he was the only one of the assault team that had not joined the bodyguard squad.

“What did y’think ye were doing, racing back out there?” Jorir grumbled.

“Avenging my stepmother, or trying to.” It was some small comfort to Einarr that Barri still looked discontent being stuck back here, away from the fighting.

“Not two hours after raiding their compound and fighting our way back to the ship. I know you’re young yet, but…”

Sivid laughed from the other side of the circle. “Oh, leave off. Don’t tell me you never tried to do it all.”

Runa cleared her throat. “If we’ve been given leave to Sing I rather think that means the Captain would like our help.”

“Quite so,” Reki averred, then paused to hum a moment. “Why don’t you see about freshening up your rescuers. You three, come forward with me a bit.”

Even as Reki left, her chosen guards forming a wedge around her, Runa began to Sing. Almost immediately Einarr’s mind was filled with scenes of early spring, of rebirth and renewal and snowmelt, and he felt the heat and the heaviness begin to slide from his shoulders. He closed his eyes. Many of the scenes he recognized from Kjellvic. Such as walking with the Lady Runa out to inspect the Vidofnir. Only this time, they had nothing to argue over… a heat rose in his face, and he hoped that the others were not seeing the same thing he was.

Almost as soon as he thought that the vision changed and he was diving into the still-icy runoff of a lake, his skin still steaming from a sauna. He cleared his throat: whatever she had done was effective, although neither of those last two was normal. He opened his eyes as her song wound down, and now Reki’s voice began to worm its way into his mind.

Red began to tinge the edges of his vision and Einarr stepped forward, back toward the fray. He was dimly aware of Jorir and Barri flanking him, leaving Sivid, Bollinn, and Kragnir from the island to guard Runa. She would be fine. Reki would be fine. All that mattered now was to destroy the Grendel quickly.

The three of them now stood, each in front of a boarding line, breathing deeply the scent and the sounds of battle. A shout began to well up in Einarr’s breast: he held it back and stepped up on the railing. The smell of smoke tickled his nose.

And then Runa joined in Reki’s song. The taut line beneath his feet swayed as he raced across and the shout, now a roar, burst from his mouth. He was dimly aware of Barri and Jorir behind him, joining in the battle roar, but the fury was already almost overwhelming his senses.

The Grendel would pay.

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