The sound of stone grinding on stone signalled the puzzle door closing behind them, although they were already far enough up the steep stair that the reduction in light was hardly noticeable. Where in the caves of the svartalfr cult the passages had been lit by a strange blue flame, here the stairwell seemed to have globes filled with glowbugs where one would otherwise expect torches.
Runa smiled with delight. “Well this seems downright friendly.”
“So far,” Jorir grumbled. “Remember who lives here.”
“Compared to where I just was? I might quite enjoy taking a meal with a pair of ravens.”
“Before or after you robbed their loft?” Irding’s voice came from behind them all. He sounded nervous.
“Oh, before of course.” Runa took his flat jibe and ran with it. “If all went well, I might be able to convince them to just give it to me, and then we’re all better off, aren’t we?”
Einarr couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle. “Oh, aye. Except for them, when Wotan finds out what happened to his wife’s bauble.”
“Oh, but what a game that would be, to match wits with Huginn and Muninn.”
“Is that the real reason you came along?”
“That’s the reason I wanted to come along, yes. My points in favor were all valid, though.”
From a few stairs farther up, Jorir hushed them. “Another door ahead.”
Einarr nodded sharply, although he thought none but Runa would see. “Let’s have a look, then.”
He hurried up the five steps to the door Jorir spotted and pressed his ear against the wood. On the other side, all was silence. The dwarf joined him, and when his liege man looked up Einarr raised an eyebrow at him. Jorir shrugged, and Einarr pulled open the door.
The room on the other side appeared to be filled with floating globes of the same glowbugs used to light the hall, but otherwise empty. Einarr drew his brows down in confusion for a moment. Whatever they faced, it was obviously magical. “Runa, what do you make of this?”
“Hmm?” It took her a little longer to reach this second landing and see the strangely lovely sight. Then it took her a moment longer, as she could not quite manage not to admire the effect.
“‘Thought’ and ‘Memory’ live here: I’ll warrant this is a test of some kind, and that it relates to the residents’ natures.”
“A trial based on our memories?” He shuddered.“Still think these things look friendly?”
“Compared to that weird blue fire they used in the cave? Absolutely. We won’t be able to get to the door without contacting at least a few of the bubbles, I don’t think. Be careful, keep your wits about you, and we should all make it across.”
Einarr snorted. “Great. It’s the Oracle all over again. Well, nothing for it.”
With a shrug he slipped into the room. Almost immediately one brushed against his arm and he held his breath, waiting for the vision that never came. Two steps farther in he crept, the others coming cautiously behind. Einarr made it another pair of steps before his attempt to duck under one bubble brought his head straight up into the middle of another. A thin film clung to his face, cold and almost slippery feeling. Then he was no longer in the room of glowing bubbles.
A familiar, familial-looking longhouse surrounded Einarr where he sat, his feet kicking the air, at the table. A well-polished wooden bowl filled with his grandmother’s porridge with berries and nuts sat in front of him. And if there were nuts in the bowl, that meant grandfather would be taking him hunting. Grandmother sat by the light of the door working with a rabbit skin. Outside, the sky was blue and the sun bright… but Einarr thought he knew what day this was.
“You’d best hurry. Your afi is waiting.”
“Yes, Amma.” Einarr scooped up another mouthful of porridge. He paused with the bite in his mouth to roll the long-missed flavor around on his tongue before giving in, shoveling the rest of his breakfast into his mouth with the same enthusiasm he had felt when he was ten. Not a morsel was left behind when he raced out the door, grabbing his bow and his knife on the way.
Mother’s – Grimhildr’s – parents had a freehold in a chain of islands some ways southwest of cursed Breidelstein, and that was where Einarr stayed for most of the raiding season – and would, until Father thought him old enough to act as a deckhand. Which meant that summer saw him roaming the forested mountain behind their freehold, hunting deer and gathering herbs and berries until the Vidofnir returned with stories in the fall or Afi had to take their fishing boat out to Mikilltorp.
As soon as Einarr stepped outside he saw his grandfather waiting by the gate dividing the field, where the two thralls tended matters, to the wood behind. Einarr ran, knowing both that Afi would not wait now that he was out of the hall and that he’d kept the man waiting too long already.
He caught up when the white-haired man was crossing the threshold into the evergreen wood that dominated the rest of the island. “Are we going after bear today, Afi?”
His grandfather’s thick white beard split to reveal a warm smile. “Deer again, my young wolf. We’ll want something a mite bit tougher than these sticks for bear.”
“What about boar?” Einarr bounced on his toes as he hurried alongside his grandfather.
Now the man laughed. “Maybe I’ll teach you how to hunt boar when your father comes back. But tonight calls for venison!”
“So… more tracking practice?” Tracking was, to Einarr’s mind, the least interesting and most difficult part of hunting.
“More tracking practice. You’re getting better, you know.”
“Better than bad is still not good.” He complained, but only half-heartedly, and turned his attention to the path ahead of them and the brilliant green of the forest around. His grandfather let the complaint pass without comment as they continued deeper into the wood.
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