Einarr set his jaw. Cursing himself for a fool, and glad he hadn’t moved his feet just there, he turned himself exactly around. He was a decent tracker, even if he’d never been able to do a lot of hunting: with a little luck he’d be able to retrace his own steps.
Behind him, though, the path soon disappeared into an impenetrable bramble of thorns into which his boot prints disappeared. He attempted to follow around the outside of the thicket, but there, too, the thorns grew – so quickly they seemed to sprout and curl before his eyes. Whatever else this trickster spirit is, it certainly is persistent. Frowning harder now, he turned back around and marched further in.
“I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I will have you return me to my friends,” he announced to the forest around him. No answer came, save the trilling of bird song. At least it’s not cawing. Of the many hazards of stealing the Őrlögnir, one that he had not until this moment contemplated was that he would be going against Wotan’s personal spies. He cursed aloud.
“Oh, there’s no cause for that now.” The voice was light and airy, although still masculine, and seemed to come out of thin air.
Einarr stopped, his hand traveling to Sinmora’s hilt. “Who are you?”
The slender, almost effeminate form of a male alfr separated itself from a tree just ahead of him on the path. “Does it matter?”
Einarr would swear the elf had not been there before: his clothes were the color of tree bark, true, but his hair was as golden as the Oracle’s, and his skin fairer than Runa’s. Einarr stared openly at the creature, waiting for an answer.
“You may call me Ystävä.”
Well, that name couldn’t be more obviously fake. “I shall choose my own friends, thank you. What do you want?”
“Let us say that I, too, have an interest in your success on this quest. I have something which may aid you…”
“I see. And what would the price of this aid be?” Everyone knew that alfr “gifts” came at a heavy price.
The elf smirked. “Are you, perhaps, not so stupid as you first appear?”
Einarr bristled, but was not given a chance to retort.
“But I am not here to play games with you. As pleasant as that can be, I must mind your mortal time if this is to work. There is a small task I will ask you to perform with Frigg’s distaff once you acquire it – nothing major, and you will alleviate a great deal of suffering by doing so.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Refuse?” The alfr laughed, the notes as musical as any Singer’s. “Perhaps you are entirely stupid. You allowed yourself to be drawn into my domain, and in my domain you will stay until I decide otherwise. You have my word, on the font of Art itself and by the hand of Tyr, that my request will not violate your conscience or your father’s.”
Einarr glared at the elf. “I mistrust this mysterious task of yours, but you make it plain I have no choice. Very well; give it here and I will be on my way.”
“Wonderful!” The alfr smiled, and a chill ran down Einarr’s spine when it did not touch his eyes.
“Why all this subterfuge, if what you want is so harmless?”
“Well, you see, I am known to the Circle of Singers…”
“And they don’t trust you either?”
“You wound me! What possible reason have I given you to distrust me?”
Einarr did not dignify that with a response even as the elf pouted at him.
“Very well. Spoil my fun. Here. Once you get to the tower, you’ll know what to do with it.” The elf shoved a wooden brooch into Einarr’s hand. When he opened his palm to look, it was in the shape of a raven and covered in runes.
“What -” But when he looked up from the brooch, the elf was already gone. A low growl escaped his throat.
The lush greenery almost seemed to grow back into the earth, it faded so quickly back into the oak wood he had been walking through just this morning.
A thread of song filtered through the trees from off to his right: Runa. How long had they been searching for him? Einarr set off at a jog in search of the voice.
It was not long before he could see his companions stopped on the road: they looked tired, and Reki in particular looked very annoyed by the way she held her shoulders under her cloak.
“Sorry,” he said as he approached the road, before any of them could begin to scold him. “Some ass of an alfr decided he was going to help us whether we wanted it or no.”
Reki scowled at him from under her hood. “Tell me what happened. In detail.”
Einarr sighed. And, as expected, she was even less happy with this turn of events than Einarr had been after hearing the tale.
“I take it this ‘Ystävä’ is known to you?”
“Unfortunately. And while I’m glad he returned you to us with only minimal delay…”
“You also mistrust the ‘task’ he wishes to ask of me. How long since I disappeared?”
“Half a day,” Trabbi grumbled.
Einarr bit off a curse. “Then let us discuss this further once we’re out of his little playground… whoever he actually is.”
Now Reki was not the only one setting a brisk pace: if they wanted to reach East Port before dark, speed was of the essence. Even so it was late afternoon before they emerged from the shadow of the forest, and deep into twilight before they arrived at the outskirts of the town. Einarr flared his nostrils: from here everything appeared normal, at least. There were no screams of tentacled horrors that came to his ears – or any screams at all – which had to be a good sign. He shared a glance with Reki. “Let’s go.”
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