Auna left them in the meeting hall under heavy guard after giving Runa the lines she would have to inscribe. She, then, wandered off into a corner of the room, muttering under her breath. From the cadence, it sounded as though she were practicing. There had been nothing to write the spell in, after all, save perhaps the dirt of the floor – and under the circumstances that would be dangerous.
Irding let out a long, heavy sigh and lay back on one of the benches in the room, his hands folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Erik folded his legs under him where he stood and pulled out his axe and whetstone. The blade was still dulled from the fight against the stenjätte, but he had ceased to grumble about it more than a week ago. Jorir likewise sat, but he began with a careful inspection of the chains of his maille. Einarr knew he should do the same, but restlessness seized his legs. He paced.
Occasionally he would catch one of the others looking at him, but there was no point explaining himself. He wasn’t even sure he understood why he could not sit still. After a while, when there was still a little light filtering in from around the door, Runa followed a scowl (for distracting her) by beckoning him over. The sound of his boots scraping against the dirt paused long enough for her to pat the ground next to where she sat.
Einarr folded his legs under him to sit next to his beloved. “What can I help with?”
“That is actually exactly what I was about to ask you. You’ve been worrying over something for ages now. Talk to me?”
“I-” he started to deny it, but stopped himself. He couldn’t do that – not with Runa. He laughed a little at the realization. “This has been the longest summer ever.”
“It will be over soon enough.”
“Maybe too soon. We need to get you back to Kjell before the ice sets in.”
Runa hummed. “Ideally. But I think the Matrons might have a way of getting a message back if we can’t.”
Einarr stared at her then. “Song can do that?”
Runa shook her head. “No, not song. I don’t really understand it, myself – I’m still technically an apprentice, after all. But I also don’t think that’s really what’s been worrying you.”
Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “It is and it isn’t. It seems like ever since the Oracle named me a Cursebreaker, things have gone… strange. Maybe even before, I guess. That Valkyrie ship was awfully far north. And it’s been all we can do to make it through to the next fireball.”
“That’s because you’re a Cursebreaker.” Runa’s voice was soft as she stared off into the distance of the far wall.
“And Cursebreakers always end badly. The ones we remember go out in a blaze of glory… but if I’m honest I’d rather find my own glory.”
Runa nodded, slowly.
“Somehow, though, the way the Oracle was talking I thought the calling might come with some sort of ability to actually do it.”
Runa’s laugh was rueful. “If only. They might live a little longer then. No, to be named Cursebreaker is almost a curse in and of itself. You’ve already survived longer than most.”
He groaned. The Oracle had taken his firstborn in payment. Would she have accepted that if she thought he wouldn’t survive to have a child? That wasn’t worth dwelling on right now, though. “Right. And immediately after we left Attilsund, we had to deal with an island full of ghosts. And then was your rescue. And now there are two ships’ worth of people waiting for us to get back with the cure to whatever the cultists did to us, and I get us cast away here.”
“Doing well so far.”
Einarr harrumphed. Before he knew what he really wanted to ask her, the sound of fighting filled the break in their conversation. He paused, listening. “We’re in no danger. But the hulder will want us to hurry once they let us out of here.”
Erik hummed in agreement. “Sounds vicious out there. I’ll be glad of a sharp blade and solid maille when we leave.”
“Subtle. Real subtle.” Irding still stared at the ceiling.
“He doesn’t need to be,” Einarr said. “He’s right. We’d do well to check our things.” Suiting action to words, Einarr joined the older men in inspection and repair.
When morning came, all was once again quiet in the forest. Einarr had slept, albeit restlessly. He suspected no-one else had done better, though. To sleep when the battle raged outside went against the grain – but this once, that was not their role. They were all ready and waiting when the door once again opened to admit the unsmiling figure of Auna.
“Are you prepared?”
Einarr met her gaze levelly. “As ready as we can be. How will we know when we near the Woodsman’s lair?”
“The darkness will grow lighter, and what once tripped you will draw back into open space. Within this clearing there will be a cave, and it is around the mouth of this cave where you must inscribe the spell. Once the Woodsman realizes you are there, what you are doing, you will be in great danger.”
“I would expect no less,” Runa said, lifting her chin in defiance – not of Auna, certainly, but perhaps the odds.
“Then fortune favor you. Should you succeed where we have failed, we will count you a friend to our people.”
Einarr inclined his head respectfully towards the elder huldra. “We will be off, then. Good fortune to you, as well.”
Auna stepped out of the doorway, and Einarr led the others back out into the forest.
The previous night’s battle had encroached on unscarred land. Einarr frowned and picked up the pace: as reluctant as he was to re-enter the Woodsman’s territory, he was more reluctant to allow the creature its victory by inches over the hulder. Ahead, the wood grew dark.
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