Their farewells said, with a smile and a wave Einarr turned away from his family to face Ystävä and the Whispering Wood and they started off down the trail.
The alfr offered no conversation, but Einarr was content to enjoy the cool summer morning in quiet. They passed into the shade of the forest, and then from the well-trod path to the Conclave into a thicker, less tame portion of the wood.
Ystävä’s voice shattered the silence. “Be very careful to stick with me, now. The High Roads are treacherous for alfs, let alone men, and if you become lost it will be nigh impossible to find you again.”
Satisfied, the alfr spoke some words in a lilting language that Einarr could not place and made a parting motion with his hands. He did not slacken his pace, though, and as Einarr followed him the forest took on an otherworldly feel. The colors grew brighter, and the shadows deeper.
“This is where you trapped me when you gave me that weird broach!”
“Yes, sort of. We were… I guess you would say halfway between the realms at that point. It was the easiest way to ensure you didn’t fall out of Midgardr’s time.”
“Ah.” Then it hit him. “Wait, those little broaches were runestones?”
“They were. Fairly simple and prosaic ones, to be sure, but runestones nonetheless. What else would Wotan use as a key?”
Einarr grunted. It was a fair point, although he felt somewhat cheated that he had held something imbued with the essence of the gods and not even known it.
“Watch your step now.”
The warning was well-taken. As Einarr followed after his guide, the underbrush seemed to reach out, grasping for his leg even as the earth itself shifted under his foreward leg. Even with the warning he was nearly knocked flat on his face. “There are no leshen in these parts, are there?”
“Leshen? I’m afraid I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Probably not, then. By way of conversation, he told the alfr of the one they’d fought on the Isle.
At the end of the tale, Ystävä gave a small shudder. “That, I think, is a creature that we may be better off forgetting.”
“Certainly I would rather not encounter another. …For how long will we be on foot? Should we not be coming to a shore before long?”
The alfr laughed. “My dear boy! I told you, did I not, that we travel on one of the High Roads of Ljosalfheimr? We need nothing so crude as a ship. We have already crossed several shores, with no more difficulty than stepping over a stream.”
Startled, Einarr looked down at his feet, then behind him. Sure enough, the path that stretched unnaturally straight behind him was crossed by a handful of streams, and probably by more that had fallen out of sight. He turned his attention forward again and found he had to run to catch up.
“Please don’t fall behind. My intention is to deliver you by nightfall, but I cannot do that if you fall from the path.”
“Er, of course… fall from the path?”
“Traveling the High Roads is an exercise of will and focus. That’s why its so dangerous for Midgardians.”
“I… see,” Einarr said, reasonably sure that he did as he hurried after the suspiciously helpful alfr.
The sun was setting when Ystävä once more warned Einarr to watch his step. This time it was as though his back foot were caught in a fast current, even as his front foot stopped cold. He still couldn’t see any difference in the path they walked – anything that might distinguish where the High Road began or ended. Einarr supposed it didn’t matter: convenient as it was, he was unlikely to travel this way more than once more in his life, and that to return to Kjell in the fall.
Now that they had paused, though, he had a moment to actually take in his surroundings. The deep golden light of sunset illumined the fluttering leaves of the beech and ash that surrounded them so that they seemed to glow, and even the underbrush seemed strangely vibrant in the fading light. Einarr blinked, staring, as Ystävä stretched tired muscles.
“We’re not still in Ljosalfheimr, are we?”
“Absolutely not. Keeping a mortal on the High Road at night may as well be asking him to disappear.”
Einarr gave a low whistle. “This island, then… wherever we are, it’s amazing.”
“Elder Melja will be glad to hear that.”
“So, we’ve made it, then?”
“We’re in the vicinity. Travel by the High Roads is not a precise art. Come on, then. With a little luck, I’ll have you there by nightfall as I promised.”
For all Ystävä’s claim that he wasn’t sure exactly where the village lay in relation to them, he set out with a quick confidence through the beech grove to the west, where he could now and then glimpse the darker green of conifers. Thin, soft grasses waved gently in the breeze at Einarr’s feet, and he could see no sign of a marsh other than the grove itself. As pleasant as it was to walk through, this must have been a dry summer on the island. Occasionally a hare would dart across their path, or he would spot a deer farther back from what resolved into a path grazing unconcernedly on the rich grass.
This had to be the most peaceful place Einarr had ever visited. The Rune masters in the village must have something to do with it, for it felt carefully tended, almost garden-like, rather than merely wild. Despite the long day’s walk, Einarr felt a spring coming back into his step. Here, he would learn. And here, the island itself seemed to promise, he, too, would gain a respite from the demands of his unwanted Calling.
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