It was good, Einarr thought, to have someone watching his back again. Not that the forest would ordinarily have been that dangerous. No, it was just that after spending most of his life on a longship, solitude could feel a little unnatural. Onnir was more a presence ahead of him on the trail than a companion, and a temporary one at that, but that hardly mattered. What did matter was the sense that, soon, he would have a trail to follow.
Or at least he should. While the Shroud had rather thoroughly vanished after escaping the temple, Einarr had been looking for more tangible signs at the time – and somewhat distracted, besides.
“So I’m still a stranger on the island. What can you tell me about the Shroud,” Einarr asked around midmorning, after the drizzle had ceased but before the sky had cleared.
Onnir gave him a strange look over his shoulder. “I imagine you know more about it than I do. You were living out there, after all.”
Einarr shook his head. “I know something of how they kept it, because they had me strengthen the wards not long ago, but Melja has been… reluctant to say much.”
“Truly? How odd. My understanding is that he was among those in favor of informing the islanders.”
“Perhaps because I’m only staying through into the fall?” It made as much sense as anything, and had the advantage of not implying his hosts thought him untrustworthy.
“Perhaps.” Onnir shrugged. “The Muspel Shroud is one of those artifacts you never want to actually find. If a person could bend it to their will, it would still only be an assassin’s tool, but it seems to act according to its own will.”
“How can a piece of cloth -”
“Have a will of its own? We don’t know, but it seems to. Fire, too, can be hard to predict, after all.”
Einarr grunted. He couldn’t exactly disagree, and they plainly know it was tied to fire magic. Otherwise they wouldn’t have known it incinerates its victims.
Onnir stopped and looked around, sniffing the air. “I think we may be close.”
Einarr stopped and drew in a deep breath of the still-damp air. The smell of wet ash caught his attention. “I think you may be right.”
The path they had been following led along the edge of a marshy area of the wood. The low ground to their right, covered in a thin sheet of leaves not yet decomposed from the last winter, looked deceptively easy to travel. To their left, a narrow footpath led towards a thicket and, unless Einarr missed his guess, a hidden camp site.
At the end of the trail, a small level clearing surrounded by thick bushes appeared. At its center was a ring of stones surrounding what had quite recently been a small fire. Based on the ground, this little clearing was used frequently, but because of that Einarr was not at all certain how recently it had been used.
“Best guess, two nights ago,” Onnir answered the unspoken thought. “Which means, just after the Shroud was freed.”
Einarr nodded. “I don’t know how it moves, or what directs it, but I think it could have been here. Let’s see if there are any ashes outside of the fire pit, I guess.”
A quick perusal of the clearing revealed no ashes outside of the fire circle, but Onnir did spot a blade he recognized embedded in the ground and half-hidden by a bush. “He was definitely here,” he mused. “So what happened that night?”
“Was he supposed to be traveling alone?”
Onnir shook his head. “Not quite. Just a small party, though.”
“Known to be loyal?”
“I should say. His Lady and their sons.”
Einarr nodded, his eyes scanning for tracks heading into the forest. A break in the brush caught his eye. “So let’s see who tried to run,” he said, pointing.
Einarr was not used to tracking people, but whoever they were following had not even tried to hide their trail, and had crashed through places he would have expected a person to go around. That said panic to Einarr. If they were still alive, they should have good information. If they were not alive, he hoped there would be something left.
The tracks led down to a small brook running towards the nearby marsh, and the farther they went the more certain Einarr was they would find something. The Shroud had been almost too fast to see as it slipped its bonds. Fast enough that Einarr wondered if the would-be thief had even made it up the ladder.
A little ways up the brook, there was a bit of a rocky rise, covered in dense thicket and berry bushes. Einarr pursed his lips: if he were a panicky child, that would look like a wonderful hiding spot, especially if there were some sort of a cave hidden by all the brush. He exchanged a look with Onnir and they both nodded.
Einarr let Onnir lead the way, and the man led them down into the brook, where the water barely came up to their ankles. They waded up into the thicket, peering to either side in search of cave or grotto or small overhang.
“Hello? Are you there?” Onnir’s voice was gentle, but pitched so it would carry. “Gruki? Armad?”
Einarr pushed aside a mat of green falling down to the water from a small overhang. Not there.
“Are you all right?”
On the other side, now, there was a hollowed out space between the roots of a particularly impressive oak. Einarr climbed up to investigate it.
“Armad? Gruki?” Onnir was calling as though his Lord’s children might be capable of responding. After two days it was still possible, he supposed. Let the man call: Einarr would simply check.
Huddled up in hollow in the roots of the oak, a tow-headed young boy was flushed with fever and shivering.
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