Einarr’s head swam, although he could feel the hard ground beneath it. The crackle of a nearby campfire was unmistakeable. The last thing he remembered was etching an ᚱ into some birch bark to keep for later use. What… happened? Where am I?
He blinked, and at first all he saw was a brownish blur. When he opened his eyes again, though, his vision was clear. That brown blur was the glow of firelight on the branches of an ash, and beyond that the starry field of night. Einarr groaned.
“Awake, are you?” The creaking voice of an old woman broke the stillness. “I’d begun to wonder if your foolishness had actually killed you.”
With another groan, Einarr pushed himself up on his elbows and squinted at the source of the voice. “What do you mean?”
The woman who sat across the fire from him in a colorless cloak appeared ancient – older, even, than the oldest of the Matrons on Breidhaugr. Old enough that Einarr was surprised to see her out in the forest at all.
“What I mean,” the crone said. “Is that the village alfs never should have let you out of their sight. What were you thinking, carving all those runestones?”
Einarr blinked at her, a little confused. “You mean those chips? I thought they’d be useful…”
“Not much use if you’ve so much of your life tied up in them they kill you. You’re a novice, and a human to boot. There’s no way your soul could support more than a handful.”
Einarr sat all the way up. For just a campfire, the light seemed awfully bright to his eyes right then. “What do you mean?”
The old woman with her drawn features snorted. “Wise enough to listen to your elders, at any rate. Did your alfr master tell you, properly, what the limits of rune magic are?”
“The Runemaster requires time, primarily. Time to inscribe the proper runes for his purpose.”
The crone nodded. “That’s right, so far as it goes. He didn’t mention runestones?”
Einarr shook his head. “I’ve only a few months with them. I only really wanted to learn how to read them. Probably he decided there wasn’t time to teach me.”
She snorted again. “Not quite, I suspect. Runestones are an advanced technique. Not because they’re particularly difficult: any fool can inscribe a rune and make it last. But every one you make ties up a portion of your life energy. With the number you had on you, you’re lucky I found you.”
“I… Yes. Thank you, for that. How long was I out?”
“It’s been a day and a half since I destroyed them for you. As for how long you’d been out before that, I really couldn’t say.”
Einarr blanched. “More than a day… since you destroyed them?”
“That’s right – and a good thing you put them on wood, too. If you’d been fool enough to carve them in stone, this old woman wouldn’t have been able to break them. That’s the only way to reclaim the bits of your spirit, after all.”
“I see.” He did, actually: his eyes finally felt like they were back to normal. “How do you know so much?”
The crone cackled. “You’re not the first over-extended student of the runes this old Singer has seen. Not on this island.”
“Wait, hold on. You’re a Singer?”
“I was, in my youth. Voice is gone, now, but it didn’t take my mind with it.” She laughed again.
Einarr nodded slowly, considering. “You have my thanks for the rescue. Tell me, did you move me from where I was found?”
“You give these old bones a good deal of credit, young man. We are not far off the path where I found you, in a little clearing not many others know. In the morning, you are free to go about your business – although if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get back to that village and bow your neck to Elder Melja. Tell him Geiti sent you scampering back, and if he doesn’t want to lose more students he should stop hiding ‘dangerous’ information.”
Einarr couldn’t keep a small smile off of his face. “I’ll be sure to tell him that when I return. But I can’t go back immediately.”
The crone resettled herself on the ground, leaning forward a bit with interest. “And what, then, has a young novice wandering about like a toddler just finding his feet?”
I think I deserved that one? “The Shroud has been freed.”
“Good gods, man, what are you doing out here? Get back to the village, let the Runemasters handle it.”
“The Runemasters can’t handle it if they can’t find it. I’m trying to make sure they know where to look.”
“And why, praytell, did they let a novice take on that job?”
He sighed. “Forgive me, grandmother Geiti. I’m afraid I haven’t properly introduced myself. I am Einarr, only son of Stigander, the son of Raen of Breidlestein. Wandering prince, veteran raider, no meagre hunter, and the named Cursebreaker besides.”
“Well well well. Now I have even more questions. But, they will wait. It is late, and you are still recovering your strength. Sleep now, and we will speak more in the morning.”
And so Einarr laid his head back down on the bare earth to stare at the stars and the light flickering on the branches above. Sleep eluded him, and he was uncertain if that was because his life energy was returning to him – he felt stronger almost by the minute – or if it was because even here he could not escape his Calling. Eventually, though, he must have dropped off, because when next he opened his eyes the sky was the pale blue of early morning. The smell of berried porridge clung to the morning air. When he sat up, the ancient Singer offered him a toothless smile and a wooden bowl.
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