The same qualities that made the woods about the Shrouded Village pleasant to live in – their brightness, their openness – also made them accursedly easy to get lost in. Within half a day Einarr learned to set his blazes within sight of each other to avoid walking in circles.
The hunting lodge he sought sat in a clearing much like the one that held the elven temple. Had he not wasted time getting turned around, Einarr thought he should have found it by midafternoon. As it happened, though, he stepped into the clearing to the smell of wood smoke and the sound of chopping wood just as the golden afternoon began to dim into grey twilight.
“Hallo there!” He called from the tree line. Einarr approached openly, making a point to keep his hands visible and empty. He had no intention of being mistaken for a bandit.
Einarr had crossed about half the distance when two men appeared. They wore simple tunics and trousers, and one of them had an axe slipped through his belt.
“Evening, stranger,” said the one with the axe, wary.
“Good evening.” Einarr stood with his open empty palms facing the two men. “Is the Lord of the Hall in?”
It was, evidently, the wrong question. Both men tensed, and the woodcutter reached for his axe.
Einarr raised his hands defensively, open palms out. “I have come from the alfr village near here. I just want to talk.”
“But you’re a human,” said the apparently unarmed one.
“I came to learn how to read the runes.”
The woodcutter did a poor job of smothering a sneer. “So what brings a sorcerer’s apprentice here?”
“There’s trouble afoot. Have either of you seen anything unusual in the last few days?”
They didn’t relax, exactly, but they lowered their guard. “Trouble, you say,” said the woodcutter. “Perhaps you had better come inside.”
The chief’s hunting lodge was well-kept: Einarr suspected it served as a secondary court or perhaps as a summer entertainment for his men-at-arms. The usual trophies were on display: reindeer antlers, animal skin rugs, the teeth and claws of various predators.
The two guardians gestured at the long table as they led Einarr inside. “Sit,” said the unarmed one. “Speak. Supper will be on soon.”
Einarr swung a leg over one of the benches at the long table, glad to be off his feet. “Two days ago, a stranger showed up in the alfr village, after the artifact that they guard.”
“The Muspel Shroud. Everyone on the island knows of it.” The woodcutter sounded grim.
Einarr inclined his head. “Then I think you know where this is headed.”
“Aye, as soon as you said trouble, although I wish I’d been wrong. I suppose it got the young fool?”
“Yes, we believe so – him and his horse. They’re working on a way to deal with the thing again. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find it.”
The unarmed man, over at the soup pot, could not quite control the tremor in his hands as he dished up three bowls. “Eat up,” he said, bringing the bowls to the table. “It’s not much of a last meal, but at least it’s hot.”
Einarr half-smiled, but when the implication hit he half stood, pushing back from the table. “Last meal?”
“Relax,” the woodcutter said. “We’re not such cowards that we’d take our own lives without even an enemy in sight. Just if the Shroud is loose, that means any meal could be your last. Best to enjoy what life you have left.”
“…Ah.” Einarr sat back down slowly, and smelled of the soup very carefully before taking a sip. “Why do you know about the Shroud?”
“Because the alfs wanted to avoid witch hunts and panic should the thing ever get loose. They’re big on their secrets, the alfs are, but that’s not one of them. Unfortunately…”
“Unfortunately, that probably means our Lord is lost, as well. He sent word that he would be coming out, but he should have arrived yesterday.”
Einarr sat up. “While I hope that is not the case, would you tell me the route he usually travels to come here? And what sort of remains I might be looking for, should the Shroud have consumed him.”
The woodcutter laughed. It was not a happy sound. “You think the Shroud leaves remains? If you’re lucky, you might find some ash.”
Einarr took another sip of the soup, pondering that. Back at the temple, had he smelled burned flesh? Had there been too much dust in the air as he climbed out of the cellar? He nodded, slowly. “I see. That has been extraordinarily helpful.”
The other man shrugged. “Not a one of us wants that thing loose. Stay here tonight. In the morning, I’ll trace the path with you.”
“You have my thanks.”
“Just find the thing so that the Runemasters can deal with it.”
“That is my intention.” And if I’m lucky, Mira and Melja will get an answer to me before I find it.
A fine misting rain fell when the three rose the next morning. It would be gone by midday – it always was, on this island – but it meant the morning’s travel would be damp and cold. Einarr shrugged and buckled his cloak about his neck: maybe the rain would help if they encountered the artifact. Not likely, but a man can dream, can’t he?
Onnir – the man who had been unarmed yesterday – today carried a scramasax and a hunting bow, and was dressed for hunting. He was checking over his bowstring as Einarr left the hall. “Are we ready?”
“To find a trail? Absolutely. Lead on, friend. How are you with that blade?”
He shrugged. “Passable. Better with the bow.”
“I’ll trust you with my back, then. Shall we go?”
Onnir grunted and started off down the path in an odd, almost bouncing gait. Einarr followed close on his heels.
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