“Would someone mind telling me why I have straw stabbing my back?” For someone who had just awoken from a grievous injury, Einarr sounded remarkably collected.
“Presumably,” Jorir grumbled. “Because you did something reckless again. You must have left half your blood on the last floor.”
“I assure you, the alternative would have left more of it. …So? How do we get past this floor?”
“I think we already did.” Irding’s steps sounded as he approached. “There’s a door on the other side now. Doesn’t look like it’s locked.”
“Well. I suppose if there was ever any doubt that they knew we were here, that ends it. That wound I took below, though – it shouldn’t have been that bad. Not after I got it bound up.”
“And maybe it wouldn’t have been, if we’d seen it fresh. But tell me, what were you doing after you bandaged it?” Runa’s voice was not yet hoarse, but definitely tired. It had taken a lot of work to fix him up, then.
Einarr rubbed the back of his neck, not quite sheepishly. “I had to move statues around, each to face its mirror.”
Jorir nodded sagely. “Moving heavy things. About what I thought, then. That bandage kept you alive, long enough for your Lady to take over. Shall we find out what nonsense awaits at the next landing, then?”
“No sense hanging around here…” Erik bent over as he trailed off. When he stood, he was holding a small wooden carving. “What in the world is this?”
Irding offered Einarr a hand up, which he accepted with a smile. His legs felt a little wobbly under him yet, but that would pass with time. Hopefully before they had to flee the tower, but he wasn’t going to count on it. Another piece of wood fell to the floor with a click as he rose.
Einarr stooped to pick it up – a little less gracefully than Erik had, just a moment ago, but before Irding could beat him to it. The thing that lay at his feet was a very familiar-looking wooden raven, carved with tiny runes. He furrowed his brow as he stared at it, and with his other hand reached into the pouch at his belt.
Sure enough, the little broach the strange alfr had pressed upon him was still there. When he removed it from his pouch, the two matched. Runa, too, was turning over one of the little carvings in perplexity.
“I think,” he mused. “We may be about to find out the purpose of the elf-gift.”
Jorir harrumphed again. “Well, best be on with it, then. Since we’re already obligated to the blasted alfr.”
With nods of agreement all around, Einarr led the way to the door and up the stairs to the fifth landing. The landing here was large enough that all five of them could gather on it comfortably, and gather they did, each one frowning at the door that barred their way.
There was no handle, that any of them could spot, nor any hinge that they could see. Standing before them was a seamless arched panel of wood, carved with an intricate tree surrounded by knotwork. In four whorls at the four cardinal points were depressions.
Einarr held up one of the two brooches he held. A raven, inside a narrow wooden ring, almost like a particularly delicate buckle. It looked as though the brooches would fit the depressions perfectly.
“Four ravens, four keyholes,” Einarr mused.
“And only three, if it weren’t for Ystävä’s aid.” Runa’s voice, too, was thoughtful. “At least we know he hasn’t played us false.”
Einarr hummed and reached up to place one of the brooches, then thought better of it. “Wait. The positions seem important. Runa, can you tell the four apart?”
She nodded briskly. “Hand them here.”
Einarr and Erik handed over the other ravens and stepped back towards the edge of the landing while Runa went to work. She appeared to study each of them closely, and soon began to mutter under her breath. Einarr could not quite understand what she was saying, but it sounded like a chant of some sort.
She continued to intone her unintelligible chant as she turned her attention to the door itself. Her voice would rise, and then she would place one of the brooches in its place. The click was audible to all of them.
Runa snapped the last of the raven brooches into place and fell silent. For a pair of heartbeats, nothing happened.
A sound like scraping stone reached Einarr’s ears and a divide appeared between the edge of the door panel and the stone of the tower. Before their eyes the intricately carved panel did not swing out but slid to their left, revealing a dim hallway beyond. Einarr blinked a few times before he realized that they had simply returned to the fairy lights of the lower floors.
He strode in, leading the way as before. They had come this far: now was hardly the time to falter.
The hallway continued straight for a dozen paces before turning hard to the left, at which point they were faced by a second, far more unassuming door than the last. It was not locked, but Einarr could not help but notice the door pull was shaped like a raven. The iconography, while not unexpected, was becoming unnerving.
The door opened on a room warm with firelight and dominated by a long feast table, as one would expect in a lord’s hall. No places were set, however, nor was there any smell of meat. A carved tree near the fireplace bore the marks of long use by a pair of enormous birds. With no little trepidation, Einarr stepped across the threshold.
A tremendous flapping sounded from out of nowhere, and suddenly a pair of ravens the size of eagles perched on that tree, staring at Einarr with black eyes.
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