The trail through the hills, now that there was no longer a troll haunting it, would have been a pleasant hike on any other island. The midday sun was bright, and a crisp breeze played with the grass. It was almost, Einarr thought, like the island was conspiring to keep people from even trying to leave. He shook his head: far better to concern himself with the task at hand. Things were looking up: all they needed was to resupply their ship, and then they could set sail. By the time the town Auna had mentioned came into view, his step felt positively light.
Jorir cleared his throat. “Not to be a worrywart, milord, but have you given any thought as to how we’re going to pay for our supplies?”
“With only the four of us, we’re not exactly equipped to raid the town, are we.” Einarr had the beginnings of an idea, but no way of knowing if it would work.
“I’m sure we would make a game showing of it…” Erik trailed off, a ‘but’ hanging heavily off the end of that sentence.
“But we probably wouldn’t get everything we needed, and we’d probably have to steal a boat in the process. Furthermore, if these are men of the Clans, raiding them while they’re here just seems cruel.”
Runa muttered a relieved thanks to the gods under her breath. No battle chanter was she, and unlikely to become one even after Einarr had his own ship.
“No, Jorir. My intent is to find some likely sailors in town, offer them a chance off this rock. Just think how bitter the old fisherman was: someone’s bound to jump at the idea of a second chance.” At least, he hoped someone would. Preferably several someones, so he could weed out the more malicious breed. Even if Father would tolerate them on the Vidofnir, which he wouldn’t, there was a certain sort of sailor that Einarr did not want on any ship Runa also rode.
Jorir frowned, but before he could object Erik spoke up. “The numbers are in our favor, I suppose.”
“Only,” Runa followed on. “Auna made it sound like the townspeople were… unpleasant, at best.”
Einarr grunted. “There is that. And if we can’t find anyone that Bardr or Father would be willing to have aboard, we can figure something else out.” Not that he had any idea what that might be.
The town ahead of them resolved itself into a collection of stone buildings and thatched roofs that made Apalvik look large. Still, though, it was no smaller than Kjellvic, where they’d found Irding and Svarek. It would do. It would have to.
On the outskirts of town, Einarr paused. “What do you lay the odds are that there’s more than one public hall in the whole town?”
“Low,” Erik and Jorir answered together.
“Good. In that case, keep together. Just like we did in Apalvik, Jorir.”
The dwarf grunted acknowledgement. If he was irritated by the role he had been given, or by the need for it, he did not show it. Based on statements Jorir had made, it sounded as though the svartdvergr nations had earned their reputation for treachery long before Jorir first set out on his quest.
Einarr continued into the town, the streets ahead of him uniformly hard-packed dirt and strangely quiet for late afternoon. Ordinarily Einarr would have expected to see craftsmen and laborers headed home for the night, maybe carrying dinner with them. But with the exception of the occasional dog he saw no-one.
“Auna did say there were people here…” Erik looked around as they walked, scratching his beard.
“Um.” Einarr was just as troubled by this as Erik sounded. While it simplified matters if the goods they needed were just there for the taking, entire towns were not in the habit of just disappearing. “So, what happened to them?”
Jorir cleared his throat. “As much as I hate to ask it, is it any of our concern?”
Runa’s look of shock was not feigned. In a way, it was a shame she would never make a battle chanter: reactions like those would help keep Einarr human.
“No, he’s right.” Erik spoke up, saving Einarr from having to. “As much as we could use extra hands on deck, our primary concern is getting the distaff back to the Matrons so they can cure the others. Unless whatever happened here is going to keep us from getting out of here, we have no reason to spend extra time or energy here.”
Einarr frowned, latching on to something Erik had said. “I think we might, actually. That old fisherman – he told us it was impossible to leave, but not why. Runa, you said you didn’t know of any way of leaving this place, either, but surely someone must have tried. We need to find them, and find out what happened, if we don’t want to end up washing ashore here again.”
Runa nodded emphatically, as though that was exactly why she wanted to investigate why the town was empty. The corner of Einarr’s mouth curled in amusement, but he let it slide.
“We should find the public hall anyway. That’ll give us a place to sleep and a place to discuss, if nothing else. And who knows: maybe someone else will be hiding out in there who knows what’s going on.” Their decision made, and their mood somewhat improved as a result, they set off down the street.
From the street, the abandonment of the town seemed complete. Here and there doors stood open, or shutters, their insides stripped bare in apparent haste. The people had left, then, and with at least a little warning. That was both good and bad. Bad, because they were less likely to find someone capable of answering questions. But good, because it meant the townspeople had a better chance of being alive – wherever they were.
Finally, as the sky transitioned from dusk to true dark, they stood before the signboard of a public hall: The Salty Maid, it read. Here, too, the door stood open, and the interior was dark. But it was a place to begin. Einarr stepped across the threshold.
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