“There never was any old man.”
Arkja’s pronouncement fell on the deck of the Gestrisni like a brick of lead.
A million questions flooded Einarr’s brain at once, such that he could not ask any of them – merely sat, staring, at the pronouncer.
Irding recovered first. “So this is twice this season we’ve run up against ghosts. At least this one wasn’t trying to entrap us into his crew.”
Now it was Arkja’s turn to gape. “Twice this season? What sort of vessel are you taking us to?”
Einarr held up an open hand, palm towards the deck. “This has been a bad year…”
Arkja hummed, not apparently reassured, but Runa broke in before the talk could spiral out of hand. “It is Einarr’s nature as a Cursebreaker, newly awakened and coming to the fore. Once we are away from the island, I will be helping him learn how to deal with it – but now I must Sing, so that we have a chance of breaking free.”
Einarr relieved Irding from his night watch as the first hints of grey dawn touched the horizon.
Irding thanked him with a yawn and pressed an arm against his still-healing rib. As the other man trudged back towards his bedroll, Einarr turned towards the sea ahead of them. There was not a cloud to be seen in the sky, and a pleasant breeze tugged at his hair.
And then, as the light increased, an all-too-familiar shore appeared ahead of them. At first it seemed almost ghostly, and he entertained the idea that it might be a mirage, but as the light rose it grew more and more substantial.
Runa’s night-long vigil had done nothing, save exhaust her voice. There was the shack, and standing tiny on the shore the ghost of an old man. With a sinking feeling in his breast, Einarr made the announcement:
Jorir looked up from the mortar where he was preparing a restorative for their exhausted Singer. “So the Lady’s song…”
Einarr shook his head. “Didn’t help at all. Poor Runa.”
“Well, milord, we expected to be turned back at least once.”
“But we expected to learn something in the attempt!”
A peal of laughter rang out from Irding’s bedroll. “All of that – for nothing?”
The rest of their cobbled-together crew was beginning to rise. Einarr ordered, “Prepare for landing.”
Jorir came up to stand beside his liege lord. “We have learned something, I think. We’ve learned that it’s not an illusion or a trick of the mind turning people back.”
Einarr cast a sidelong look at his man-at-arms. “Which leaves us with – what, exactly?”
“Something intrinsic to the island, I expect, or at least trapped here with us.”
Einarr harrumphed. That was cold comfort at best right now. He could only hope the Matrons were still keeping the corruption of the black blood at bay for those left behind.
The sun was full in the sky by the time the Gestrisni sat once more on the sand of the Isle. Well before that the figure of the old man vanished, although Einarr did not see if he’d done so in the ordinary way or not.
Once they were all on land again a fire was built on the beach, and some few of their more perishable provisions set to roasting. The melancholy mood of the night before still – or perhaps only again – held sway. As they ate, Arkja stared into the fire, a faraway look on his face.
“It occurs to me,” he mused, biting off a hunk of fish. “There’s a story I heard, a local legend, from one of my patrons not long after I landed. Well before Päron, or whoever he was, started terrorizing the town.” He fell quiet for a long moment.
It was Irding who finally broke the silence, once it became plain Arkja was content to let it stretch. “Well? Go on.”
“No one alive has ever known anyone to live in that shack, it’s true… but there are those as talk of a terror that walks these shores, an evil spirit in the guise of an old man. They say calamity follows him like an old friend, and fell magic clings to him. He was the first, you see, first in a long line of devils doomed to be forgotten.”
Einarr, too, sat staring into the fire as he contemplated this. Confusion fairly radiated off of Erik, though – and once again it was Irding who broke the silence.
“How is this supposed to help us?”
“It means the creepy old man who took us in that night may be just as much a revenant as the Päron we fought in the town,” Runa explained, certain that some of the others were just as lost. “And maybe, if we can break the chain binding him to the moral realm we can free ourselves, as well. Not that we have a lot to go on.”
Einarr stood abruptly. “We need to search that shack.”
Runa followed him, up the beach to the tiny shack, as did Jorir. The old man was not at home when Einarr opened the door, although it looked almost as though he had merely stepped out for a minute. A stew, very similar to the one Einarr remembered, already bubbled in the pot for the night’s dinner, and the wooden bowls and spoons did not appear to have moved. All of this, they could safely ignore.
Runa moved to examine the lone shelf not filled with cooking implements, while Jorir and Einarr stepped over to what served as the old man’s bed.
No-one spoke as they searched. It would have felt crass: this already felt like a breach of hospitality. And yet…
Jorir rolled under the crude bed frame even as Einarr lifted the pillow. Beneath it, old and yellowed but otherwise well-preserved, was a bound book. There was a golden key on a fine chain wrapped about the cover, but no lock. Gently, Einarr unwound the chain and opened the book.
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