“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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