Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.
“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.
Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.
Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”
“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”
Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”
“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.
Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.
“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”
“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”
“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.
Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”
Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”
“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”
“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”
Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”
“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”
The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.
Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?
Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.
Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.
When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.
The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.
The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”
Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”
“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.
Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”
“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”
“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”
“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”
Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”
She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”
“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.
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